Next week, the district will make its third payout under its pilot pay-for-grades program, a controversial initiative that allows high school students to earn cash toward college for good grades. More students have signed up for the program since its launch in September, CPS says. Among high schools contacted by Catalyst, the percentage of students who received checks for good grades rose over the first two payouts.  

Here are the percentages of students who received checks in the first and second payouts:


1st payout

2nd payout







Al Raby










50% (est.) 


More than 400 additional students from the 20 participating high schools have now signed up for the program: 3,749, up from 3,299 initially. Citywide, about half of students received checks in the first round; CPS declined to provide data for the second payout.

The program, created by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, allows students to earn $50 for A’s, $35 for B’s, and $20 for C’s in core subjects. Students earn half the money up front, and half when they graduate. The program is privately funded.

Anne Mamaat, a freshman at Senn, received an F in one class and was ineligible for the first round of checks. Seeing her friends earn cash was an incentive to work harder, and Mamaat got a check during the second round.

“Now I’m studying more and I do after school tutoring,” Mamaat says. “I want to work to get the money, but I also know I have to do all my work to graduate and do well.”  

Chor Ng, a freshman algebra teacher at Uplift, notes that schools need to do whatever it takes to make sure their students have a successful year in 9th grade. “If we can get them through freshman year with good work habits, however we can motivate them, we have a better chance of them  [graduating and] being successful as adults in the future.” 

Still, Ng questions whether the program will benefit the lowest- achieving students.

“The high-performing students are going to achieve good grades whether we pay them or not,” says Ng. “The lower-performing students are going to continue to struggle, and it’s not because of lack of motivation. It might be due to lack of skills, ability, or [problems in their] home life. This program is for the average students who need that extra push to take them to that next level.”

Katie Ellis, who coordinates the program for CPS, acknowledges that the program benefits higher-achieving students. But, she adds, “I’ve heard that low-performing students are sitting down to discuss what they can do to improve grades. I don’t know if that conversation would have happened without the incentive.”

At Richards Career Academy, program coordinator Maureen Waters says some teachers are noticing fewer problems with classroom behavior and more students showing up, participating in class, and doing their homework. 

“This whole process has started more dialogue between students, counselors, and teachers,” Water says. “They’re sitting down to talk about progress, about GPAs and course credits, and whether [students] are on track.  Students are just more involved in their education.”

Stephen Laslo, assistant principal at Uplift, reports similar results, with more students taking advantage of review sessions and study groups. Ultimately, he says, “they’ll see the possibility of a high GPA and going to college with fewer obstacles in the way, because they will have gotten accustomed to academic success.”

The project is part of a three-city venture that includes New York City and Washington, D.C., where middle-grades students are targeted. In Washington, students earn cash for good behavior, class participation, homework completion and good attendance as well as good grades. Fifteen schools are participating.

“We believe middle school is a critical point in a student’s academic development,” says Jennifer Calloway of the D.C. Public Schools. “This is just one more tool we can add to our arsenal of initiatives, all designed to re-engage students and increase their potential for high achievement.”

In New York, 4th- and 7th-grade students in 64 participating schools earn cash based on their performance on standardized tests.

In Texas, a program that targets low-income and minority schools and aims to build students’ college readiness provides cash incentives for students who earn passing scores on Advanced Placement exams. (A passing score on an AP exam can often count toward college credit.) Through the National Math and Science Initiative, a public-private venture, the program is being replicated in seven other states.

Cornell University economist Kirabo Jackson found evidence that the Texas program, beyond boosting participation in AP courses, also helped students raise their scores on college entrance exams and increased college enrollment. One caveat: The program did not have a measurable impact on districts’ high school graduation rates.

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