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Family Finances

Pay for Grades? Bad Idea

A few months ago I was asked in an interview what I thought of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to pay fourth- and seventh-graders for high scores on standardized tests. Not much, I replied. Once you start down the slippery slope of paying for grades, you have to keep raising the stakes. And once kids get old enough to earn their own money, you lose your leverage.

Not to mention that striking this kind of deal doesn't always work. High-achieving students will get good grades anyway, so you're wasting your money. Kids who are underachievers fail because they're inconsistent, says child psychologist Sylvia Rimm. So if they slip and get a poor grade, they figure they're not going to get the reward and give up.

Hoo boy. My comments prompted a flood of responses to my online column, many of them taking issue with me. "My dad paid me for all A's, and I saved every bit of the money to buy my class ring and clothes for college," wrote a reader. "The money was a well-deserved reward for all my hard work." One dad described his unique payment formula: "High-school GPA divided by 4.0 is the percentage I'll contribute toward college."

For the most part, readers who took me to task thought that getting good grades was a child's job and, like any job, deserved monetary compensation. I loved this tongue-in-cheek observation from one parent: "You have to be careful paying for grades. When students become adults, they might think there's a link between excellent work and higher pay."

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Other people sided with me. Based on her experience as a high school teacher, reader Joanne Friedman says she "can state unequivocally that paying for grades is counterproductive. Eventually kids enter the real world, where only some work is rewarded with cash, and they seem shocked to discover that not everything they do is worthy of pay. They've never learned about responsibility to the community, to their families or to themselves."

Instead of handing out money, writes one parent, "from preschool on, we emphasized to our sons the importance of a good education and good grades. They understood that they were working for themselves and that their long-term investment would pay off."

Common themes. I'll buy that. In my opinion, going to school isn't so much a job that demands a paycheck as it is a child's role in the family. It's my job as a mother to plan meals for my family, but I don't expect to get paid (although an occasional "Thanks, Mom" is always nice).

I also think that learning is a sign of a child's natural growth and development. We don't pay our kids for mastering skills like tying their shoes or riding a bike, nor should we pay them for learning to read. Plus, performance in school can be influenced by so many other things -- a child's basic intelligence, personality traits, home environment and learning style, for example.

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True, crossing your child's palm with a Benjamin in return for all A's can be a motivator, at least temporarily. But sooner or later you have to wean kids from payoffs to a sense of internal satisfaction. I like the idea of a spontaneous reward -- a high-five or even dinner at a nice restaurant -- along with an expression of parental pride in a job well done (or improved effort). One of my favorite letters came from a young woman whose mother promised her dinner at Red Lobster each time she made the honor roll. "Not only did I get my meal, but it was also quality time that my mother and I spent together. That was priceless."

Regardless of whether they were pro or con, readers expressed two common themes: a belief that education is valuable and a desire to communicate that belief to their kids most effectively. In pursuit of those goals, good luck to all of us parents, whatever our tactics.

Janet Bodnar, columnist and deputy editor, is author of Raising Money Smart Kids (Kaplan, $17.95).

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