For decades, psychologists have warned against giving children prizes or money for their performance in school. “Extrinsic” rewards, they say — a stuffed animal for a 4-year-old who learns her alphabet, cash for a good report card in middle or high school — can undermine the joy of learning for its own sake and can even lead to cheating.
But many economists and businesspeople disagree, and their views often prevail in the educational marketplace. Reward programs that pay students are under way in many cities. In some places, students can bring home hundreds of dollars for, say, taking an Advanced Placement course and scoring well on the exam.
Whether such efforts work or backfire “continues to be a raging debate,” said Barbara A. Marinak, an assistant professor of education at Penn State, who opposes using prizes as incentives. Among parents, the issue often stirs intense discussion. And in public education, a new focus on school reform has led researchers on both sides of the debate to intensify efforts to gather data that may provide insights on when and if rewards work.