My new gym has cardio machines with televisions, which I initially disdained.  I’m not much of a TV watcher (except for Survivor), and being entertained while exercising seems morally suspect.  But yesterday I happened to have some earbuds in my pocket when I arrived at the gym, and so I figured “What the heck? Modern culture is so riddled with putrescence that my participation would be but a drop in the muck.”


Onto the elliptical trainer I hopped.  With my ears plugged in, I turned on the tube and commenced channel surfing while swishing my feet and legs to and fro.  I suspect that I swished less energetically than usual, due to the attention commanded by the shiny object and moving pictures, but that’s what I get for my moral decline. 


I settled on the smiling face of Stephen Colbert.  His guest: Professor Ronald Fryer, the researcher behind a controversial program in which students in some Big Bad Inner City High Schools get cash money for good grades.


How much money?  $50 for each A.  $35 for each B.  $20 for each C.  Every five weeks.  Half payable up front, half upon graduation.  Sweet, eh? 


Note to any children of mine who may be reading this and developing an aggrieved sense of entitlement: No.


The program is a simple, desperate attempt to foster a culture of achievement in predominantly black inner city schools.  Fryer says the achievement gap between black and white kids is the number one civil rights issue we currently face.  Well, I don’t think it’s a civil rights issue, but it’s an issue, all right.  A whopping big problem that no one has any idea how to fix.


Colbert, bless his heart, said that when HE was a youngster, students were rewarded for doing well in school by their parents not opening a big ‘ole can o’ whup ass on ‘em.  Fryer agreed, saying that his sainted grandmother, the schoolteacher, used an incentive program she called “Bring Your Own Belt.” 


But here we are, paying kids to meet pretty basic expectations instead of taking them out to the woodshed when they fail to measure up. 


The program is in its infancy, so we can’t say whether it will alter the fates of the students.  Preliminary results look good, but it’s a long way from pulling decent grades in the first trimester of high school to graduating and going to college.  A mighty long way.  As it stands, 50% of children who begin high school in the city of Chicago drop out.  That’s thousands of kids each year, starting out their lives with nothing to stand on.  What are they going to put on their job applications?  No transcript, no list of extra-curricular activities.  Zip.


The program, called “Green for Grades,” is privately funded.  Not a single one of your tax dollars is going into the pockets of those ghetto kids.  But it feels wrong, doesn’t it?  Morally suspect, even. 


Since I live a modern city life that involves very little physical labor, I haul my overfed self into the gym, where I can run for hours without traveling a single meter and watch sardonic comedians tackle the social problems du jour.  And since those Chicago kids live a modern city life in which black children see no point in adopting the values of the institution called school unless a point in the form of currency is created for them, do we not owe it to them to make that connection now, while they are still the children of our village, and before they become the next generation of unskilled adults who can’t pass on a culture they’ve never grasped themselves?


Or should we break out the whup ass?



  1. Great post!!! perhaps not physical whup ass but rules, rewards and follow thru.  This new green bothers me too.  When do we start paying for just doing what you are supposed to do…I think I want to be paid for every stop sign where I make a complete stop…or how about a little extra cash for not running over a pedestrian as they cross the street..that should be worth something.  I think our values are screwed!!!

  2. I’m sorry, but I never got any GREEN for getting good grades. I was just expected to buckle down and do the work! What are we really reaching our kids of we PAY them to get good grades? The better question is, what is this world coming to that we feel we need to “bribe” our kids to do well? 

  3. No, I don’t think the “whup ass” approach is the right one, maybe not for the same reason as you, but nonetheless. Who would do the whuppin? Not the school personnel, I hope! What is absent of the equation is the “p” word. Do these students have parents? Vast numbers (hordes sounds bad in this context) of adolescents evidently appearing in the gene pool sans homes, role models, parents, suppers at a kitchen table, etc.   What is the demographic of kids “growing up in the home of both biological parents, still married to each other”? Like my kids? 8, 10 percent? Add “able to milk a cow by hand” and the demographic just disappears off the screen!    My point is there are enormous issues surrounding the generation currently being lost out of the school system, and I don’t think 50 bucks an “A” will make an appreciable difference.This was insightful-  “those Chicago kids live a modern city life in which black children see no point in adopting the values of the institution called school ” Values are slippery to define, but their absence is not hard to spot. And they are the one thing schools are not allowed to go anywhere near, because we are such an open minded, diverse, culturally sensitive, free-thinking post modern society.   Thought provoking post!

  4. I can’t agree with this approach at all. It is setting kids up for a work for reward system, which is great if that is the way the rest of your life works.  As a mum, little of what I does has reward, at least in the everydayness of life.  What happens when these kids get to University or College and no one is around any more to reward them for their grades?  Will they have found the place deep within them that allows them to work independently as self directed learners……. I can only hope.I thought your piece was insightful though.And as a home schooling mum, the thought of paying my kids for grades, or beating them for them either (for that matter), makes me want to spit up chunks of glass.And as pretty as picture that paints, my heart does go out to kids that grow up without anyone giving a damn about them and thus NEED this kind of system to begin with.x

  5. I don’t know what the solution to the achievement gap is, but I could see a program like this showing promising results, initially, and then falling down a steep slope of cheating, corruption, inflated grades, and no one actually getting an education.  I just read “Death at an Early Age” by Jonathan Kozol, about teaching at a mostly black inner city school in Boston in 1964-65.  Many of his kids WANTED to learn, but had no decent books, or even a safe classroom.  How did we get from kids who want to learn but are frustrated by their confining environment, to kids who need to be paid to make an effort?

  6. Seeing as I was a victim of Whoop Ass no matter how well I did, I’d like to point out that with the new generation…we have Whoop Ass Cushions.  That’s right, it doesn’t work any more.

  7. I don’t agree with spanking for grades at all.  I’ve always thought that wise parents with held extracurricularactivities and other privileges for an incentive to good grades, butthese students may not have parents who are willing to put that effortout there.  I knew lots of people growing up who’s parents would give them x amount of dollars for every A though.   I don’t know that they will find a lot of success in this cash for grades system, but with kids that already aren’t motivated and are dropping out in such high numbers I can understand the desperation of the situation. 

  8. There’s also the problem of grade inflation – the (prestigious) college that my brother attended gave out A’s to damn near everyone so as not to destroy their chances in post-graduate education.  Any teacher with an ounce of misplaced compassion in them would probably prop up their kids’ grades to increase their take-home pay.  Just one of the myriad unintended consequences, of course.

  9. Isn’t this news story similar to the boy sticking his finger in the hole of the dike? He’s doing something, but there needs to be other stronger presences in these kids’ lives. I hope that other people step up to become involved.

  10.     I’m sure that there are many kinds of incentive that would appeal to kids.  But until we repair some of the more intrinsic elements of their lives, most of these will continue to be little more than a punch line.  Inner city kids who see themselves as a gang member with little real hope of achieving something beyond that venue have little incentive to do well in school.  Writing skills don’t help you pop a cap in someone’s a**.  Until the primary cause of death becomes something other than a gangland or police shooting, how can they prize an understanding of Shakespeare?  I agree with most of the comments posted above, and think this is a dubious plan at best.  But perhaps it will save some kids and begin to offer hope.  Maybe that is something that can take hold and have a real effect.

  11. Some people are extrinsically motivated and for these people, the cash rewards might work.  My kids always got books for good grades.  My mom was a Kindergarden teacher and she was a great believer in bribes I mean rewards for good behavior.  Sadly, I think that a lot of kids who do badly in school get a lot of whup-ass at home. Whup-ass can even turn on genes for violence in people who have the genes.  I kid you not.  I just wrote an article about it. 

  12. Oh, godDAMN!  Where’s Marva Collins (I think that was her name) when you need her?  She had 4 year olds spouting Shakespeare, and they could explain what they’d recited, in their own terms.  I remember seeing that special (I was in the 1st grade at the time), and mentioned to my teacher why she didn’t teach like Ms. Collins.  Suddenly, I’m supposed to be meeting counselors for something-or-other, which was also probably related to me saying she was brainwashing us, and why I shouldn’t read books for “older kids”?  My sister was 5 grades ahead, so I’d read the same stuff she did. I don’t think I was anything spectacular, and there are probably millions of other kids like that who do the same thing and don’t get diddly.  The St. Louis Public Schools had a big-screen TV giveaway if kids just ATTENDED school on the first day.  As for pay, hell I wish I DID get paid for good grades.  I got them most of the time (unless I was so entranced by another subject that I let the other classes slip–I still have this problem), so it would’ve been win-win!  I’d do what I normally did (be a nerd), AND get $50?!  Hell, in 1980’s money, that’s like…..$2,000!!

  13. I often teach a college chemistry course in which the students carelessly broke glassware. They particularly broke something called desiccator lids.  Fine and threats did not result in lower breakage.  One of the best students in the class even broke a desiccator lid. But then I offered a pizza party if no desiccator lids were broken for a semester.  It worked like a charm. 

  14. Can’t we pay them AND beat them?  Wouldn’t we be doubly sure then that the lessons would stick?I for one am interested to see how this turns out.  I mean, it’s privately funded, so knock yourselves out, private funders.  I’m reminded of a similar program that was tried in the 1990’s (I think), where this rich dude “adopted” a group of inner-city grade-school kids, promising to pay for their post-secondary education if they stayed out of jail and didn’t get pregnant or get anyone else pregnant–oh crap, now I’m going to have to look it up.  Bah!  [Hold music while Madhousewife looks up the story]  Ah yes, here it is.  George Weiss guaranteed 112 kids a fully-funded education up through college, providing tutors, after-school programs, counselors, etc.  45 kids never made it through high school; 20 graduated college, 20 became felons, a whole lot had kids before 18 but I don’t know the numbers.  Anyway, he’s still doing it, apparently (or was as of this article in 2004).  So no judgment from me as to whether it’s “worth it”–obviously George Weiss thinks it’s worth it because of the kids he’s been able to help, and he keeps trying to make the program stronger.  This cash-for-grades program is different, of course–probably cheaper, too–which is why I’m interested.  I’m not sure I can dismiss it out of hand as “wrong.”  I mean, maybe it is, but I don’t know.  I didn’t need a financial incentive to get good grades, and I’m not sure any amount of money could have persuaded me to do better in chemistry (and my father was a chemist).  My own kids aren’t sufficiently motivated by money (would that they were! that would totally be worth it!), but we often provide external incentives in the hopes of building habits that will result in eventual internal incentives (forgive me for that crappy turn of phrase, but I’m writing this for free, after all).  Maybe sometimes it’s wrong and other times it’s not so wrong.  Unless it’s government money, of course.  Then it’s always wrong.  🙂

  15. @wherever_we_go – Well, frankly, the rest of the their lives probably WILL be set up as”work for reward” – it’s called a job, and most of us get paid for ourjobs at some point in time.  If school is your “job” as a young person, why not get paid for it.  Ok, maybe stay-at-home parents don’t get paid, butthat doesn’t mean they don’t do that work for other reasons – personalsatisfaction, commitment to raising children a certain way, to actuallySAVE money (on childcare, etc.).  So that has its own rewards, too,tangible and intangible.   When you get to college you ARE rewarded for good grades – with scholarships, for example, or access to certain programs.  There is always some external incentive, but that doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive with *internal* incentive – I think they work hand-in-hand.   We often spout these high-minded ideals about “lifelong learning” – what if external/financial motivation LEADS to not just good grades, but a love of learning?  In order to get the grades, they have to do the work, and damnit I bet they happen to *learn* something along the way whether they want to or not!  I agree with everyone else who pointed out that the problem goes much deeper…and by the time you’re paying high schoolers for grades, you may be up against years of bad schools, bad teaching, and neglectful parenting.   So if cash gets them moving and gives them one last chance at success or college, WHY NOT??!!

  16. @DrTiff – And furthermore, education is often if not always presented as the ticket to riches.  You strive to do well in school so you can get into a top-name college which will (allegedly) give you the cred to get a high-paying job.  But the kids in question need their monetary rewards to come sooner and more frequently.

  17. not at all what I expected your post to be, and for that, I’m thankful.Incentive vs punishment, eh? I don’t think it’s a question of either because the answer would be both. You don’t necessarily have to beat As out of children but holding them to a standard and establishing up front the consequences for not towing the line is reasonable. They want such and such video game, but if they want it, they must prove themselves worthy of owning that game by doing their best in school. The reward would obviously be getting them the video game, the consequence- no game. I believe in spanking, but I don’t think it’s the appropriate measure for things like this. Spanking (only done on the tush with a hand or a wooden paint stirrer (sounds odd but they prevent excessive force because they’ll break before you hit too hard) is more for agressive wrongs like hitting their brother or willfully lying or breaking something that belongs to someone else- and really only while they’re rather young (children older than age 10 shouldn’t need spankings anymore).

  18. I work my butt off on my grades, and I’ve *never* gotten any money for my grades. This isn’t the same as jobs, this is school. School is to get you educated for your future job, so you can make money to live.

  19. i think i must be the most liberal conservative i know.  i think it’s a GREAT idea.  and the fact that it isn’t tax funded is even better, although frankly i’d rather see my tax dollars go to something like this than a myriad other programs.  assuming these are children from economically disadvantaged families, a program like this can help them now (with perhaps $100 a month or so that can buy food, shoes, a winter coat,) as well as at graduation, with a jump start at that point to pay for a semester of college, or move them to a different part of town.  it also serves to strengthen the very real fact that effort = reward,  work = income.  it will be interesting to see how the test scores and achievements of these schools are affected in the next several years.

  20. ABSOLUTELY a whopping big non-civil-rights issue that no one has any idea how to fix.  I WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with that assessment and think about it a lot.  I’ve blogged all around the edges of the public school problem in THIS big city.  Colbert’s can-o-whup-ass only works if the parents genuinely care about school and genuinely value education as its own goal.  I worked in a court for a while where the judge enforced the truancy laws…like, REALLY enforced them, with fines and court dates and handcuffs and minor stints in jail.  A lot of people cried.  I don’t know how many people actually stayed in school.  Sort of the institutional equivalent of can-o-whup-ass.  Right now in our district we’re having a big flap about uniform GPA.  See, back in the day, people got into the state universities based on grades and test scores.  Now there’s a law that all kids in the top 10% automatically get into the state schools, which is really messed up, because all the top-notch, competitive high schools are filled with kids who can’t get in, and all the poorly performing schools get to send their top 10%, despite the fact that often they aren’t prepared.  So, we have honors and AP classes to help distinguish the best of the best in the top-notch, competitive schools, and those classes get an extra grade point to help with GPA.  This means that only the brightest kids who take the hardest classes get into the top 10% and therefore into the state university, which seems unfair to some people.  So now they want to eliminate the extra grade-point, and give everyone an “equal” shot.  Yikes.  How DO you solve these kinds of problems?  And what about kids who just aren’t as good at some academic subjects as others?  I wonder, someday, will we have state-funded plastic surgery for those of us who weren’t born quite as easy on the eyes as others????

  21. This is how my Grandad (who served in the British Army) encouraged my Dad and uncle: if you did well in school, you got a pat on the back and dinner. If you didn’t, you’d get the belt and then you can go wash up for dinner. When it got to us, my Dad never beat us if we performed below expectations – but his expectations were for you to score a minimum of 80% out of the full score – and even then, he’d grimace at the report card. If we did well, we’d get special treats on the weekend out (and maybe a small gift/some money, depending on how important the exam was). However, the emphasis wasn’t on getting the money, Dad never stopped emphasizing how lucky we were to be getting an education and that we weren’t raised rich so whatever we wanted we had to put in effort to get it. And when we did badly, there would be a long drawn nit picking session (sometimes lasting 2 hours) where he’d go through every exam question and drill us on why we didn’t get it right (and God help you if you get the same question the next test and get it wrong…again). I’m not sure why we feared Dad in this respect, but we did – and if anything, he would strike in us the fear of being nobodys. I also think you don’t need to physically punish girls to get them to keep in line (although my Mum thought otherwise, but that’s a another story) but I know my Dad was tempted to belt my brother a couple of times for not working hard enough on his grades. 

  22. I don’t really have anything to add. I once worked with a lady who not only paid her son for grades, but grandparents, aunts and uncles paid him as well. He got great grades, but who knows what’s going to happen to him in the real world? He’ll probably at least be better off than someone who flunked or dropped out. And who’s gonna do the whuppin’? Maybe someone should figue out a way to incentiveize parents.

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