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Pay for Grades?

One of the most recent attempts to improve school performance by children involves paying them for grades. A report in The Economist (May 22nd) describes two separate studies done with American and Israeli school children, in which the children were offered money to improve their grades. Each test took a bit of a different tack - one paying for test outcomes, and the other paying for the number of books read.

The results are inconclusive. One of the problems with American kids is that they simply don't know how to do any better. It's not that they're lazy or uninterested in education. They just don't know how to improve. Which means they aren't being taught how to learn. Which means they aren't being educated at all.

Those children who were paid to read more books actually did a little better on their exams, and they continued doing better and reading books after the incentive was removed. Here the kids were enticed to pursue a learning methodology - reading - and the outcome was at least more encouraging than with those students who could not improve their test scores, not even with a wad of money awaiting them.

I'm troubled by these reports for two reasons. First, it's alarming to know that America's children do not know how to improve their learning skills, that they have not been given the basic tools for learning that they will need for the rest of their lives. Second, the idea of paying students to study harder reveals, in my view, the base economic motive that permeates American education today. Students are encouraged to learn for economic reasons, so that they can get a good job and enjoy the good life. Learning for the joy of learning is evidently not a sufficiently compelling motive.

But I suppose it's only what we should expect. In our day economics is the motivation for everything, so why not consider making it a more direct incentive in the education of our children? But learning - and living, for that matter - just to make a few bucks to spend on frivolous and fleeting things seems a travesty of education, not a solution. It's where we end up, however, when our highest purpose in life is to enjoy financial success and the comforts of things.

Christians are not immune to the attraction of money and things. But we serve a higher purpose, one we are called to embody in every facet of our lives, shout from the housetops, and proclaim to every creature. The Church's failure to demonstrate a compelling example of living for a higher purpose has yielded the floor to crass materialism. But this can never satisfy the deep human need for significance.

T. M. Moore
T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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