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The Problem With “Bribing Students”


You may have heard about the study that was just released about paying students for increased academic performance (see TIME Magazine’s article Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School? and their slideshow Paying For Kids For Grades: Does It Really Work?)

I found this article to be very disturbing — disturbing enough, in fact, to decide to take the time to begin reading the entire 107 page study itself (it’s hard-going, though, and I haven’t completed it yet. I wanted to share my preliminary thoughts now since it’s being publicized so much). I was particularly disturbed by the study’s assertion that providing these kinds of financial incentives results in the same benefits that participating in a Head Start program or in a class with a smaller number of students does — “at lower cost” (page 7). I can only imagine how that analysis is going to be used by some “school reformers.”

It examined programs in three communities, and had very decidedly mixed results — my take, at least, is that in most places it didn’t work the way the study sponsors had hoped. In fact, in my reading of the study, it didn’t seem to me to work at all (I’ll elaborate on that perspective later in the post). I’d be interested in hearing what some trained social scientists might think after looking carefully at the study. I don’t pretend to have the academic background to fully understand the language of the entire study. However, I’d like to share some of my thoughts and I’d love to hear what others think, too.


As Daniel Pink and others have described and demonstrated much more ably than I can do here (see A Few Reflections On Daniel Pink’s New Book, “Drive”; On Rewards & Classroom Management; and New Study Shows That Paying Students For Higher Test Scores Doesn’t Work) extrinsic rewards do work — for mechanical work that doesn’t require much higher-order thinking. But it doesn’t work for anything that requires higher-order thinking skills and creativity. And, in fact, these incentives reduce intrinsic motivation over the long-term.

The study seems to reinforce that view. Paying students resulted in higher attendance and an increased number of days when they wore their school uniforms. Students passed more tests in the Accelerated Reader program (even though the study says students read more books in order to do so, I, and I’m sure others, know how easy it is for students to “game” those tests without completing the books). In addition, I think there are very few who would suggest that the AR program promotes any kind of higher-order thinking. In some locations, students who received payments increased their scores in state standardized reading comprehension tests. I’ve got to wonder, though, how accurate even those assessments are. In our school, we find that having students complete clozes (fill-in-the-blank) three times a year, along with timed reading with a teacher to measure fluency, are more accurate assessments of reading ability than standardized multiple choice tests.


One concern I have with this study is that it appears to me that it’s comparing apples and oranges.  This may be how these kinds of studies are supposed to be run, but it certain raises a caution flag about its results.  They provided $6 million for incentives to one group, and the control groups received….nothing. It’s similar to the critique made of studies funded by Accelerated Reading — they compare students using AR with students who are not doing any kind of expanded reading effort.

What could teachers and schools in that control group have done with that money?

How about some of the ways my colleagues and I spend our own money on students — and would love to use more money in the same way:

* Have students go on Amazon to choose books of their own which I then purchase for them.

* Purchase trail mix, graham crackers and peanut butter for students to help replenish their self-control (see “Self-Control As A Limited Energy Resource” In The Classroom)

* Buy multiple copies of books students want to use in a student-lead independent discussion group.

How about some of the ways our inner-city school prioritizes its resources — and would love to use more money in the same way:

* Stock all classrooms with their own library of high-interest books.

* Have a well-stocked school library and flexible librarian who is willing to host student-initiated book discussion groups

* Training teachers in effective, engaging literacy strategies, including free voluntary reading.

* Having counselors spend enormous amounts of time tracking down ways students can get needed eyeglasses, medical check-ups, and dental work done.

* Providing computers and home internet access to immigrant families to use for language development.

* Go on field trips to neighborhood libraries and other enriching places.

None of these efforts come with any of the dangers the extrinsic motivators do…

I wonder what effect those kinds of expanded efforts would have on student achievement, intrinsic motivation, and the development of students as life-long learners.


The study doesn’t give any thought to an exit strategy.

I can see, in an extreme situation, where incentives might be an effective intervention. In fact, I’ve written a lot about how I used it in a class that got out of control last year (see Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”?).

The difference, though, was that I used incentives to get students focused and, after six weeks, created an atmosphere where things became reversed — they wanted off the incentive program so they could demonstrate that they didn’t need it any more.

One would think that this kind of outcome would be desired by any kind of school-based incentive program.

I’m not pretending that the criticisms I’m making here would pass the muster of a peer-reviewed journal. They are my initial reactions — no more.

But, as I mentioned, the study was disturbing enough to me that I felt I needed to get something out there. I’ll be writing more about it once I can bring myself to finish reading the entire study, and I’m eager to hear other people’s reflections, too.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. GREAT post!!!!! I wish all schools would do everything you say in the “But What About the Control Groups” section. I would also add provide parents with guidance, resources, encouragement and modeling of quality home literacy activities–especially for children who are not yet enrolled in school.

    Although I am not a fan of extrinsic rewards, I wonder what would happen if the parents were paid extrinsically to read aloud to their children (or find others to do it if they were unable). It might reduce the *parent’s* intrinsic motivation over time, but how would it effect the children? I wonder if a study like this has been done.

    Thanks for always making me think, Larry.

    • Julie,

      For what it’s worth, speaking of extrinsic motivation, I give extra credit to my students who read to their younger siblings or cousins. It seems to work well, but who knows?


  2. Hi Larry,
    I forgot to tick the “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” box, so I’m just posting this so I can do that. Feel free to delete this post.
    Thanks again for a great post!

  3. Thanks for taking the time to examine this article. I got Time in the mail just minutes from the mail man (print version) before I read your tweet.

    A colleague in a district neighboring mine has been working with a group of diverse students in a pay for academic performance experiment. I, too, have been reading Drive and made the connection to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

    The sad part is that with the stakes so high, we as educators are doing things that sometimes make no sense – whether they are researched or something we feel in our guts.

    From what I understand about my friend’s experiment, what some of the students seem to respond most to is the attention. Perhaps for the first time in their school careers someone is taking an interest in their success. At this relational level it is difficult to separate the impact of the monetary reward versus human connection.

    Great post – thanks!

    • Diane,

      I think you, and your friend, make a key point. In my experience, whether it’s buying a book on Amazon or giving some early morning snacks, I suspect the fact that they experience someone caring for them might be making the real difference.


  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the idea of bribing students.
    Last year I was involved in a discussion with a group of educators looking at positve behaviour for learning [PBL is the catch phrase here is Australia] and it was suggested that students be given school dollars [like monopoly money] as rewards for behaviour and performance. These notes would then be exchanged for movie tickets, wii, ps3 etc. At the time my take was that digicitizens don’t value material rewards as much as ‘human connection’ as Diane said.
    Basically I believe students need boundaries and clear instruction, but most importantly they need postive human interaction and sadly this is too often lacking at home and within their peer groups.
    I have worked at many challenging schools and found positive reinforcement and suitable challenges incentive enough to encourage students to strive for more knowledge and understanding.

  5. Two quotations from a recent Dan Pink interview get at the heart your concerns:

    “it will work in the short term. However, it can have devastating effects in the long term. It basically says to that kid that the only reason to study for a test, the only reason to do these sorts of things is in order to get this reward.”

    “But kids who were promised a reward for drawing were no longer interested in drawing in their free time. That contingent reward had extinguished their interest in drawing. So that reward got them to draw in the short run—absolutely, it worked. Quote unquote “worked.” But it had a devastating effect in the long run. And that is what concerns me.”

  6. Who will be writing the Letter to the Editor of Time to decry such a dangerous notion?

  7. Pingback: It’s all about the exit strategy… | Reflections on Teaching

  8. Pingback: Bribes for learning « History Tech

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