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Volume 25, Number 2
March/April 2009

Money and Motivation

New initiatives rekindle debate over the link between rewards and student achievement


AEP 2010 Award - LearnedKids in schools across America are bringing home big bucks.

Middle-school students in Washington, D.C., can bank as much as $1,500 per year for high grades, good attendance, and exemplary behavior, including wearing their school uniforms each day. In Chicago, ninth and tenth graders can earn up to $200 every five weeks. Flunk one class and you lose all your earnings for that grading period, but ace your classes all year and you can earn up to $2,000. Half is payable at the end of the year—but to collect the other half, you have to stay in school until graduation.

The promise of cash—or “Green for Grades,” as they call it in Chicago—is the latest twist in a decades-old debate over how best to motivate student behavior, particularly learning. Critics of cash-based schemes say research shows that external incentives may bring short-term results, but fail to help students develop a curious intellect and the intrinsic desire to learn. Once the money stream runs dry, critics say, research indicates that students will revert to their old ways and may even regress. Indeed, similar programs in some public schools have failed in the past.

Despite these concerns, the idea of using cash awards in public elementary, middle, and high schools appears to be gaining traction, fueled by research grants from private and corporate foundations. Arne Duncan, former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools who in January became the U.S. Secretary of Education, believes the dropout problem is urgent enough to justify more experimentation with monetary rewards. In Chicago, Duncan says, he was “fighting for the lives” of inner-city teens, who need high school diplomas to gain a foothold in the local workforce. “If they stay in school, it shapes the rest of their lives,” he says. “It’s make-or-break time. We need to keep them engaged.”

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

L. S. Blackwell, K. H. Trzesniewski, and C. S. Dweck. “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention.” Child Development 78 (January 2007): 246–263.

J. Cameron. “Negative Effects of Reward on Intrinsic Motivation—A Limited Phenomenon: Comment on Deci, Koestner, and Ryan.” Review of Educational Research 71 (Spring 2001): 29.

The Charles A. Dana Center,

Edward Deci Self-Determination Theory homepage,

The Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard University,

C. Mueller and C. Dweck. “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 75 (July 1998): 33–53.