How About Paying Parents for Their Kids’ Good Grade? This Guy Is Really Thinking Like a Freak

(Photo: woodleywonderworks)

(Photo: woodleywonderworks)

In  Think Like a Freak, we touch briefly on paying schoolkids for good grades — which, much of the time, isn’t successful. This inspired a note from a reader named Gary Crowley, who describes himself as “an economics major in college many years ago”:

Hey Guys,

Loved Think Like a Freak.

One thought: Why don’t we trying paying parents for kids getting good grades??? If the parents are motivated to make money, from someone else’s hard work, then they’ll make the kids work harder and want them to stay in school.  I think paying the kids doesn’t take  advantage of the leverage of a parent over their child.  Just a thought.

As a child in the feudal system of a blue-collar Irish-Catholic East Coast family, my Dad took great pride in and took the credit for his beautiful lawn. This would be the same lawn that his children did all the work on. Haha. Don’t see why it wouldn’t work for grades. And I’m sure the parents would be just as proud, even if they’re getting paid.

Gary’s note may also be referring to a brief passage in Think about the parents of schoolkids:

[M]aybe, when we talk about why American kids aren’t doing so well, we should be talking less about schools and more about parents.

In our society, if someone wants to be a hairstylist or a kickboxer or a hunting guide—or a schoolteacher—he or she must be trained and licensed by a state agency. No such requirement is necessary for parenthood. Anyone with a set of reproductive organs is free to create a child, no questions asked, and raise them as they see fit, so long as there are no visible bruises—and then turn that child over to the school system so the teachers can work their magic. Maybe we are asking too much of the schools and too little of our parents and kids?


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  1. Tim says:

    Yeah this won’t impact grade inflation in poor neighborhoods AT ALL.

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    • Rob says:

      Mandate a curve, problem solved.

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      • Voice of Reason says:

        Two things that you could do (or do both):

        1: Provide the bonus money only for the students in the top 25% of their class, and extra for the top 10% of their class (hence grades are only relevant to where they fall in comparison to others).
        2: Base the payments off of examinations administered by independent contracted 3rd party proctors with no prior affiliation to the city or children.

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  2. Edo Sebastian Jaya says:

    I think it can be a great idea and worth an experimental investigation!

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  3. Eric R says:

    I think the problem is that the small incentives that might motivate a grade school kid with no or little income will be meaningless to most adults.

    A $50 bonus to a kid for improving their GPA a full grade letter would be a motivation to them. $50 to most adults to spend even one hour a week teaching their kids, not so much. And would an hour a week even be enough to make that kind of difference?

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    • Dan says:

      Eric, you are making the assumption that the improvement in grades will come from parents teaching their kids at home. Parents being interested, and expressing their interest, in their kids good grades is likely enough to improve the child’s work ethic and thus grades. A small incentive is likely enough to make the parents interested and to make them express that interest to their children. It’s so crazy it just might work!

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      • Halvor says:

        And not to mention the cognitive dissonance that small incentives create. This idea is definitely worth exploring further.

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    • pawnman says:

      For $50, I’d certainly devote an hour a week to teaching my kid. But then, I’m already helping her with homework for free, so I may be a bad example.

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    • pawnman says:

      I think you underestimate the incentives. People will stand in line for hours to get something free, even if they could buy that something for $20 and a couple of minutes. I can easily see parents upping their level of involvement if they thought they would get paid for their kids’ work.

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  4. Jonathan says:

    Incentives are always fun examine because they are complicated. Remember to consider
    motivational variables in individuals (e.g. personality, upbringing, culture, etc.). Variables could potentially be a.) perceived value in a “good grade”, b.) perceived value of the reward (e.g. money), c.) motivational aspect of the parent (intrinsic vs. extrinsic). I am certain there are others. The motivation aspects for rewards/incentives are key to a successful program. If you look at the blue-collar, Irish-Catholic on the East Coast having pride in his yard as an example, does he have pride in his yard or is his pride in the yard the anti-shame he would feel having an unkempt yard. Is it “OK” to shame parents? Having a similar background to your writer (sans a yard), the shame my mother would feel if her children didn’t bring home A’s was a greater motivator for her than money, although family vacations would have been more Beach less State Park if she was paid for our grades.

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  5. Chaim shmulevitz says:

    I can’t imagine an economical model where your idea would be feasible (maybe in India)

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  6. L.e.b. says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 13
  7. JMauldin says:

    I have a hard time incentivizing something that should be done based on its own merits. If we continue to “pay” people for doing things that are in their own best interest we are not solving the underlying problems that cause them to not want to do the thing itself. We also create “incentive” for people to demand payment for other things they should be doing anyway.

    Slippery slope and all that…

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    • Blaine says:

      This is a genuine serious question. Not rhetoric.

      Does it actually matter what motivates someone to education? If someone doesn’t see the inherit value to understanding and comprehending the world intitially… Wouldn’t they, when armed with that knowledge be grateful once they have it?

      Does it matter if someone takes school seriously simply because they are paid to do so?

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    • pawnman says:

      So, to take this to its ultimate conclusion, should we stop paying firefighters, police, and medical professionals because taking care of a fellow human is something we should do anyway, not because we are motivated by money?

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  8. JimFive says:

    Any incentive for good grades is equally an incentive to cheat. It’s much easier to do the homework than to teach the kids how to do it.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      In general, incentives should be based on things you have control over, like “Did your kid do his homework every day?” rather than “Did you child score in the top 50% of the class?” But this will lead to parents doing the homework (possibly making the child copy out the correct answers so that the handwriting is correct).

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    • plusECON says:

      You can’t cheat for your kid on her test…

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      • Enter your name... says:

        But you could tell him that it’s a good idea.

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  9. Abby says:

    I used to think that you shouldn’t receive an incentive for something you should do anyway (such as grades) but I am not sure I feel that way any longer. Honestly, being a grown up is all about receiving incentives for things that we do-work, following laws, etc. In an ideal world, no one would need these incentives, but in an ideal world my children would clean up their rooms on their own without the threat of grounding.

    I do find two other arguments against incentives more compelling-grade inflation (which I do think is real but not as pervasive as people think) and the concept of shaming parents. I hate judging parenting and comparisons. We all fall short at least some of the time. Of course, no one needs to know who receives payments and who doesn’t. It would be up to the recipient to share that information just like most non-public employee salaries are confidential.

    However, I would prefer to pay kids for grades and pay parents for other participation such as volunteering in the school, attending PTA meetings, attending parent-teacher conferences, etc. Think Like A Freak states that parent involvement in schools is the most important factor.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      If you want parents to attend PTA meetings, I think you could achieve that not with cash, but with providing free child care (for all ages, not just students) and free supper (for everyone: “Save time, money, and hassle. Don’t cook tonight; just come eat here while we talk about the school”).

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      • JimFive says:

        If you want me to go to PTA meetings how about convincing me that the PTA does something useful.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Oh, but PTA does something useful. PTA might not do anything useful that you care about, but that’s different.

        PTA provides a useful outlet for parents (mostly mothers) who need social opportunities and want to have the psychological experience of “helping” and “being involved” and “supporting the school”. It schedules volunteers and engages in significant fundraising, which is very useful to teachers who don’t want to spend their own money on extra supplies and to taxpayers who don’t want to pay for playground monitors, teachers’ aides, parking lot attendants, supplies, or treats. It organizes various holiday events, which is very useful to teachers who don’t want to hassle so much with these “optional” (read: mandatory) celebrations. It distracts parents from more effective forms of funding schools (useful to “taxpayer advocates”) and organizes parents to support school bond measures (useful to the school board).

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  10. Nathan says:

    I think the economists guide to parenting provided pretty good evidence that parents would have little influence on grades. I have one child who gets straight As and we barely even mention school to him and another that really struggles despite the fact that we are providing him as much support as we can muster.

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  11. jane says:

    There is hardly a market for grades. Schools in poor neighbourhoods can’t afford to pay parents a living wage for the kids doing well in school. And schools in better neighborhoods can’t afford to make a difference in family budgets either.

    It boils down to whether parents think their kids good grades are important enough to bother. And society can’t afford to make it their while via money. It only works as social pressure, via making better money after getting a better education, having a path to better life by completing school, etc..

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  12. Jennifer says:

    It seems like paying parents’ for their child’s work will only encourage them to do the work for their child – write research essay, construct science fair projects, etc. Also, this greatly disadvantages poor families where parents often work longer hours and are less available or students who do not have a parent as their primary guardian.

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  13. Ryan N says:

    I bet in at least half the cases, this would just lead parents to excessively punishing the kid for doing poorly, and when the kid did well, they’d probably blow the money on something stupid that doesn’t benefit the family.

    A lot of people are just bad at being people.

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  14. Enter your name... says:

    Paying kids for performance is not a new idea. There’s a hoary tradition of “weekly allowance”, payment of which is often dependent upon performance of household chores or performance in school.

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    • dd says:

      Yes, doing work within the household, paid for with the family’s money.

      Don’t conflate payment from outside family (paid for by unicorn farts, perhaps) with a family unit deciding how to allocate it’s own resources.

      What this is more analogous to are the various children’s programs in hard line fascist and communist countries, where the children are providing a “service” to the state, through information procurement or some “state’s honor” type action, like winning a sports competition.

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  15. rob says:

    “Maybe we are asking too much of the schools and too little of our parents and kids?”

    Having three kids that are brighter than most (subjective but say for a minute that it is true) and having two of them finish high school, I can say that public schools focus on helping the remedial students, recognize the athletes, recognize the well behaved, and generally fail to recognize the students outside of these groups as long as their achievement test scores are passing.

    My older two worked and achieved decent grades, ending up to the top quarter of their graduating class, both will/are attend college.

    My youngest is a HS freshman, she is spending part of the next two days attending school-wide award ceremonies for the HS athletes, there are no similar school-wide events planned to recognize those students achieving academic honours aside from commencement for the graduating seniors. My
    daughter is academically gifted, in that she works hard and applies herself, gets a lot of class level recognition from individual teachers, but does not receive any school-level recognition (this year she placed in the top 10 in the state in three separate subjects, French, biology, and history).

    Asking for schools to do more for the students that are actually learning and succeeding is not asking for too much, it should be something that the schools recognize, reward and encourage. At best, these students receive recognition from a single teacher in a classroom while athletes get recognized at all-school events.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Most American schools have an annual award ceremony that includes academic achievements. Some have academic-only events, and some include sports. It’s usually in the late spring, so that local groups can use it to present small scholarships to some of the seniors. Phone your principal in the fall and ask when yours is scheduled for.

      (Don’t ask, “Do we have one of these?” Ask, “When is it?” Nearly all schools have one, but if yours doesn’t, you want the principal to be embarrassed to discover that community members expect one to exist.)

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  16. t says:

    All I can say is it was not the kids that made me give up teaching, it was the parents. The involvement that I had (in a parochial school in the Northeast) was “Johnny’s not passing. Make him pass.” As if it was my “magic” that could do so. So, paying the parents for their children’s good grades could backfire onto the teachers and make more of that.
    In my current career (public librarian), I see many parents come in to do their child’s research – to get the books, magazines, or online database printouts that Johnny needs to write his research assignment (um, who is writing? is what I often want to ask).
    By the same token, I do see quite a number of hardworking students come in and do their own homework, their own volunteer hours (often by tutoring others), and their own research.
    But it’s the kids of the parents who are doing the work for them that would be benefiting most, the kids of theirs who would suffer most, and the teachers of those kids who would pay the most if that plan went into action.

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  17. NZ says:

    There’s a lot of money and celebrity to be gained, apparently, by blaming anyone–ANYONE–except students for their own bad grades:

    • It’s the teachers, who just teach to the test and let the kids cheat!
    • It’s the schools, which don’t make learning fun enough and don’t feed the kids well enough!
    • It’s the funding; there’s not enough resources and money pouring into education!
    • It’s the parents, who don’t take enough responsibility or time to make sure their kids are doing the work!
    • It’s TV! It’s the internet! It’s cell phones! It’s video games! These are distracting the kids!

    How about this instead:

    1. Establish a curriculum and stick to it.
    2. Fail kids who don’t master the material.
    3. Discipline “problem” kids, and if they don’t respond to discipline, remove them from the classroom and let them work. (A 7 year-old can sweep floors and dust window panes just fine.)
    4. Stop telling every kid to go to college. Most of them shouldn’t.

    “What?! We can’t do that! It’s too radical! It’s not something that a country like America should ever do!”

    That’s exactly what America used to do, and doing this produced the generation that beat the Nazis and put Niel Armstrong on the moon.

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  18. geoff fernald says:

    Stephen, I wanted to mention a book about happiness in regard to your comment last night at the end of your talk at the Castro theater. The title is: Dandelion Wine. In it there is a great story broken up in several different places about ‘The Happiness Machine’. I think you’ll like it. Author is Ray Bradbury

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  19. Marian Kechlibar says:

    If the payment is small, it won’t be much of an incentive.

    If it is big enough to be an incentive, it will be an incentive to try gaming the system…

    1. Outright bribery (dividing the payment with the teacher in exchange for inflated grades).
    2. Various kinds of coercion (threatening to accuse the teacher of sexual assault if grades aren’t inflated).

    The whole problem is probably intractable. It is almost impossible to force people into working hard, if they have no inner drive to do so.

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  20. Everson says:

    I’m surprised that none of the other Brazilian readers of the blog mentioned the several social programs currently in place by the Brazilian Government. They comprise of several different payments awarded to low income families monthly.

    It used to be that one of the requirements to keep a familiy eligible for the income was that any kids in the family should attend school. I don’t know if that is still a requirement nowadays.

    The ‘Bolsa-Família’ program makes a huge difference for a lot of families (in the sense that it puts food on the table) and allowed several families to actually become consumers (which is a requirement in Brazil, because that is how our Government attempts to build wealth). But I don’t know if it made a real difference in the quality of the education or the level of educated children.

    That’s because attending school is different than learning. I know that the suggestion called for paying incentives for good performance, not for attending, but still, it may bring some data into the discussion.

    Also, for people that are not concerned about gaming the system (like grading on a curve or the fact that parents won’t be able to do the kid’s test), well, as long as your system relies solely on tests as criteria, maybe you are right. Another novelty in Brazil is that kids get evaluated by tests, by activities in class, by extra-class activities and by less formal criteria (such as teacher’s discretion).

    Yes, we are pushing kids forward and building students that are done with their formal studies, yet are really not prepared for either college or the professional career.

    I count myself amongst those that think that we should not add monetary incentives to achievements that are nothing more than what is expected. As a parent, I am fully engaged into my daughter’s education and achievements. Just like my parents were with me.

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  21. Diane says:

    Don’t you think some parents will blame the usual suspects, the teachers, if little Johnny doesn’t get them a check? How could you prove it had anything at all to due with the parents? I say pay the students!

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  22. Sharmila says:

    So this particular perspective on the whole reward-your-kids thing is so obvious and over-worked (hello Tiger-mom)! it almost isn’t worth mentioning, but since nobody else has and it wasn’t mentioned in your movie, here goes…
    The reason immigrant Asian kids in particular do so well when they move to the West is that they understand that studying and getting good grades IS their job, and there isn’t an opt-out clause. They are fed daily stories of how fortunate they are, how hard their parents worked for their future, and the least they could do is get straight As. They are rewarded with praise and treats for exceptional achievement (winning prizes, coming first in class and the like) but mere good grades are taken as a given. Their appeals to be treated similarly to their less hard working “American” friends are met with scorn and derision, and it is clear that they are being held to far higher standards. This inculcates a sense of inner (and innate) exceptionalism as well as a hard work ethic and aptitude for delaying gratification, all skills that are probably very useful to them for the rest of their life.
    This phenomenon has been described in multiple immigrant groups at different times in history of course, but it is in the modern Asian- American context that it seems to have been best studied and recognized (plus that’s what I’m personally most familiar with!).
    Taking the reward out of context and simply paying kids for grades, while it makes economic sense, does not seem to function even half as well as when the child’s entire life is structured around this ethos. Unfortunately without a cultural change and active parental involvement from a very young age, I’m not sure the “immigrant” model can be translated to the native born. Even among Asian families there is evidence that these gains are lost and achievement reverts to average population levels by the 3rd generation.

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  23. Voice of Reason says:

    Even if this does technically work, I’m against it on principle. If they’re complaining about how the elite and the rich have all of the opportunities, why are they not taking advantage of them when they’re handed to them on a silver platter? So now we not only have to pay for their children’s education, but we have to pay them for letting their children take advantage of these opportunities that people would kill for in other parts of the world? Where is the accountability?

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  24. allan says:

    This stuff absolutely won’t work. It’s crazy. If incentives actually worked we might have to reduce our entitlements because that would mean entitlements were incentivizing able and healthy people not to work.

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      Incentives clearly do work. If you haven’t noticed, we’ve given incentives for generations of people in certain communities to sit on their porch and do nothing all day and pop out babies, and they’ve taken advantage of it.

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      • allan says:

        I offered you an incentive to look closer and it worked you looked closer, but not close enough. Of course incentives work. You are totally correct we have given the wrong incentives to many people.

        My statement was a bit of sarcasm that you despite your understanding of things missed. I wonder what will happen with those that believe that the over abundance of entitlements are an economic boom for America.

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      No, we’re definitely on the same page Allan. I think that we as a society need to stop subsidizing the parenthood of people who have no business of being parents. Being a parent is a wonderful reward and a privilege, but it should not be a right. If you want to do the right thing, and make it a little easier for people in abject poverty, make those payments and benefits without regards to dependents, and take away the deductions for children in our tax code. Make child services more aggressive, and guarantee that children don’t have to pay for their parents mistakes, but failed parents don’t have the lifetime reward of children that society pays for.

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  25. Jessica says:

    Roland Fryer has done some interesting work designing incentives to improve student performance. You can check out some of his work here

    One consideration when paying for grades is that children and parents often don’t actually know the correct steps to take in order to improve grades. Is it through improved attendance, completing homework, or reading more books at home? There is a process of steps that lead to the desired outcome. We have to figure out which steps result in the greatest improvement, then create the incentive

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  26. Gary says:

    Chronic absenteeism is correlated with poor performance in school and it has long term effects.

    Rather than paying for grades which can be gamed, pay for getting the kids to school.

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  27. Sab says:

    I used to teach middle school in the inner city. My first assignment every year was to ask the kids to write the following: what grade do you want in this class, and why? There were only ever three answers. 1) I want an A because my parents will give me such and such reward if I get an A. 2) I want an A because my parents will give me such and such punishment if I don’t get an A. 3) I want a D so I can pass the class. I never got B or C or F as an answer. So yes, if you can get the parents motivated, the kids will respond accordingly.

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  28. Aida Prado says:

    I have tried incentivizing my son to bring up his grades with money. My deal was for every A he would bring home he would get $20, B $10, Nothing for a C, I would deduct $10 for every D, and I would deduct $20 for every F. The first nine week term was successful with my son earning $60. He had earned one A, four B’s, and one C. It seemed though that after that my son lost interest and his grades slipped. Mind you he is not failing but most of his grades are C’s and occasional B’s. Now just so you can have all the facts I am very involved as a parent and help my son everyday with school work/projects.

    I have no idea as to why he is not motivated to get this money I am offering him. It very well may be that he is 14 and more into getting a girls attention versus being a great student. He is also an only child. We are lower middle class, but we are getting by pretty well. I have do not know what else to try right now. All his teachers tell me that when he applies himself he is a straight A student. It may very well be a stage, at least that is what I am hoping for. He also has consequences for dropped grades but he does not seem to care.

    In this particular case if someone gave me a cash incentive to help get my son’s grades up, I don’t know if there is anything else I could do. I was already trying to do everything in my power to help him pick up his grades. A parent can do all they can for their child but at the end of the day the child has to be the one to decide to succeed to the best of their potential.

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    • Voice of Reason says:

      Maybe you could try a scared straight program with your son:

      Take him around a really ghetto disgusting looking neighborhood in the inner city, and a really lame white trash trailer park, and let him know that this is the lifestyle that you can expect by getting C’s and D’s.

      Then take him to really awesome areas where people are rich and having fun, wearing suits, drinking, smoking cigars, and getting with really hot women and let him know that this is what happens when you get really good grades.

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  29. Renato says:

    I don’t live in GA but to my best understanding, isn’t this how the Hope Scholarship works? College at UGA is paid for if your kid gets a B average. Apparently there is some gaming that occurs between teachers and parents. All hearsay but worth studying.

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  30. Adrian Meli says:

    Have not heard this idea before-can imagine a lot of unintended consequences!

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  31. Rodrigo Augusto says:

    I’m a Brazilian teacher, and we have a national programa gere tua tis very similar to This idea, but situação One huge diference: the goverment pays some money to the parents to keep their children going to school. As a professional in the area i assure you : its not working… The name of the project is Bolsa Familia . You guys shout take a look at it. Cheers from Brazil!

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  32. Tovet says:

    Parents really shouldn’t be paid. To me, that’s kind of selfish of the parent. It means that the child’s success is the parent’s success? SO NOT RIGHT!

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