ABCs to ATMs - The Case for Paying Students to Learn
Preamble: A Transformative Summer Experiment
In the summer of 2023, I found myself walking into a school in Cleveland, Ohio not as a distant observer of educational systems but as an active participant in a daring experiment. Eight inner-city youth, all taking summer classes, agreed to embark on this journey with me. The setup was simple: two sessions per week for three weeks, no rigid rules, just an open environment where respect and safety were the only boundaries. Cell phones were welcome; games were allowed. But there was a catch, a golden opportunity hidden in the guise of a challenge: learn some lessons, pass short micro-assessments, and get paid. A maximum of $100 per student was up for grabs over the three-week period.
The first week was chaotic, to put it mildly. Students were loud, having fun, arguing with each other and one even resorted to acting like a baby. Despite the disorder, I reiterated that they were free to do as they pleased, as long as it was safe and respectful. Responses varied. One student declared she doesn’t read, watch long videos, or study. Another wanted a shortcut, asking for the practice test to ace the actual assessment. I had to clarify that the practice “test” was, in fact, the study material itself, designed to be straightforward and non-deceptive.
Then, something remarkable happened in the second week. One student, obviously bright but likely under-challenged in her regular classes, passed two assessments. As I counted out $30 for her, a competitive spark ignited between her and a friend, also a high-achiever, or likely to be one with the right motivation. The race to $100 was on. Surprisingly, they both exceeded the threshold, driven by their friendly competition. The additional assessments passed were not even eligible for pay.
By the third week, the entire dynamic had shifted. They understood it was no joke, but also the work had to be done to earn the money. It was not a free handout. Students were early, computers at the ready, impatiently asking for approval to take their assessments. Every single student completed multiple assessments, earning between $50 and $100. Even the student who had initially claimed not to read or study passed three assessments with ease on the final day.
The impact extended beyond academics. The post-program survey revealed that the earned money was primarily spent on food. One student bought a coveted shirt; another generously split the earnings between a younger brother and sister. Those engaged in the initial competition added their earnings to their savings accounts. The school principal later confided in me that the sense of accomplishment and self-reliance these students exhibited was nothing short of incredible.
This experiment was a microcosm, a small-scale demonstration of what could be possible on a larger scale. It showcased not just the power of financial incentives, but the latent potential in each student, waiting to be unlocked. It underscored the notion that when we change the rules of the game, we can fundamentally alter the outcomes.
No doubt this did not permanently change their study habits. To do that, the program would have to be implemented year-round and open to everyone. But in a very short period of time, never yelling, never punishing students, and never pushing them to get results, their attitude and behavior changed to a much more academic mindset. Last I checked, this is the goal and challenge for every school.
The question now is not whether this model works. The question is, how can we make this an everyday reality for every student? As we explore this question and many others throughout this book, keep in mind the transformative power of a single summer experiment. If such drastic changes can happen in just three weeks, imagine the possibilities of implementing this model full-time.
Now, let’s dive into the heart of the matter.
The experience was highly motivating. The students were reluctant at first because they did not believe that they would actually get compensated. Once they were paid, they worked even harder. They were so proud to have accomplished something where they could actually see the value. The thing that stuck out the most is that all of them used the money for food, not candy, but real meals. So a need was fulfilled that we had not even contemplated.
We surveyed students and included replies throughout the book to give readers a look inside student’s lives.
Makayla, 10th Grade, Towpath Trails High School in Akron, Ohio
Do you think students should be paid to learn?
Yes. School is like work.
If you make more than $3,000 a year to learn, how would it change your school experience?
I would be more motivated to learn.
How would your family be impacted if you and each of your brothers and sisters were making money going to school?
We would be able to pay all our bills and eat.
If you graduated from high school and had access to a savings account that had $10,000 in it, what do you think you would do with the money?
I would get a car and save the rest in an account until I had enough money to move.
Tell a true story about a time in your life when having $500 would have helped you a lot.
Now. I need $554 to be able to keep living in a home.