New York City is about to start paying some of its students for good grades: A perfect score on a state exam will pay fourth-graders $25. Exemplary attendance will also bring a reward. If New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg needs a consultant, he can call on me – I'm an expert on the pay-for-grades system.
Last year, on report card day, my son and a bunch of his 13-year-old friends piled into the back seat of my car, ready for the last-day-of-school party at McDonald's. "Jack got a laptop for getting straight A's, and Laurie got a cellphone," one boy said. "Oh, yeah, and Sarah got an iPod Nano, and she's only in third grade," said another. "And how about Brian? He got $10 for each A."
I suddenly became concerned. These payoffs might get parents through grammar school, but what about high school and beyond? What would be left after the electric guitar, the cellphone, the portable DVD player, and the iguana in the bedroom?
I saw the road ahead: As the homework load increased, my income would decrease. I saw my comfortable lifestyle vanish before my eyes – no more of those $5 bags of already-peeled organic carrots. No more organic anything!
I started to take in a big gulp of air. Would every goal attained by my two children fetch a reward? A high GPA? A good class ranking? Would sports achievements be included in this reward system: soccer goals, touchdowns, runs-batted-in? What about orchestra? Would first chair pay more than second? I'd be broke by eighth-grade graduation.
Then I thought of the family down the block with the five kids, their basement overflowing with multiple sets of Polly Pockets and American Girl Dolls, their yard littered with trampolines and electric scooters. When their children were ready for college, how would they ever afford to go campus shopping? (Never heard of campus shopping? It's something new; no one I grew up with ever visited any of the colleges they applied to. If your campus was in a cornfield, you just dealt with it.)
"We never paid anything for good grades," said my neighbor across the street, whose son was recently accepted at MIT. "He just did it on his own. Maybe once in a while we went out for pizza, but that's about it."
Don't you just hate that? We're all running around looking for the MP3 player with the most updates, and she's spending a few dollars on pizza. She gets motivation; we get negotiation. And what about the primary grades? What do these students get? "When the teacher asked if anyone got rewards for good grades, everyone in my class raised their hand and said they got ice cream cones," said one third grader.
Parents: Beware the slippery slope. It begins with the third-grade ice-cream cone and ends with the 11th-grade Mustang convertible.
Mr. Bloomberg, if I had to offer you one piece of advice, it would be this: $25 doesn't seem quite enough. Think Big! Think Tangible! Think iPhones! I see the iPhone as this year's big prize – after my son wraps up his valedictory speech, of course. Title: "How to get your parents to spend your college tuition in elementary school."
• Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer in Deerfield, Ill.