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When Incentives Go Bad: so many children left behind

freedumb on Flickr Understandably, I received a wee bit of pushback on my post on incentives because I didn't clarify what I meant by incentives. While reading the latest issue of Good Magazine, it became utterly clear that there are incentives offered up towards reaching positive goals that are incredibly damaging.

In the feature article entitled School Wars, Gary Stager describes the birth of 'No Child Left Behind' (NCLB):

(George) Bush (Sr.) thought business leaders might be able to help fix public schools by running them more like businesses. So in 1989, he asked the Business Roundtable (300 CEOs and governors) to try to reform education, since governors and CEOs—administrators all—share similar temperaments and a desire to impose top-down policies. Armed with corporate war chests and support from governors, the Roundtable’s influence met little resistance.

Uninterested in the complexities associated with teaching and learning, the Business Roundtable demanded that state legislatures impose “outcome-based education,” “high expectations for all children,” “rewards and penalties for individual schools,” and “greater school-based decision making.” In order to enforce and measure these voluminous imperatives, standardized testing would be required.

The way that NCLB works is this: there are standardized tests that schools and teachers are incentivized to do well on. The incentives trickle down. If a school's test scores are poor, their funding is in jeopardy. If a school's test scores are high, they get more funding. If a school has more funding, the teachers get paid more. If a school has a cut in funding, teachers may lose their jobs and classroom sizes go up. And the incentives for students? Not great, really, other than if you don't pass by your final year, you don't graduate. Students who fail the test in earlier grades get extra attention, helping them pass the test by their graduating year.

So, yes, these are incentives meant to improve quality of education. However, the incentives do the opposite. As Stager states, "It’s hard to argue against raising educational standards, but imposing uniform curricula and teaching practices leads to a paradoxical lowering of standards." NCLB exemplifies the type of incentivizing that does way more damage than would doing nothing at all.

Although it is personally baffling that anyone thought this idea would lead to a stronger system of education, I see where the designers behind NCLB could have imagined this would work logically. Standardized testing allows for a uniform metric of success. Rewarding for higher test scores should incentivize teachers to make smarter students. If A=B and B=C, then A must equal C. Right? Of course, if we were dealing with machine produced calculations. But we aren't. We are dealing with a diversity of learning styles, socio-economic realities, interests, hopes and dreams and an ever-changing economy where the standardized tests just aren't matching up to reality. And being the mother of a child who is being taught to those tests is really eye-opening.

Of course, there needs to be a bit of a measuring stick to determine the success of individual programs, but going back to what you measure matters, I'd propose a better measurement to be a decrease in drop-outs and a higher level of engagement (made up of metrics like kids getting involved in extra-curricular activities, collaborative things like fundraisers, student plays, science fairs, student websites and yearbooks, parents getting involved and engagement with the wider community).

I would also change the incentives for schools and teachers. Decreasing funding for a school in crisis doesn't seem to fit the situation. I know it works in business - a department is slacking off...kill the funds - but a learning environment is different. I am only guessing, but I assume that the schools that lose funding are those in areas that need it the most. These are the schools with kids from poor families whose parents aren't there (or aren't able to be there) to sit and help their kids with their homework. These schools need more funding, not less. Meanwhile, as the article reports, people who can afford to, remove their children from these schools to home school or send to private schools, leaving a raging Red Zone (Naomi Klein's work on disaster capitalism).

Incentivizing performance with money leads to “juking the stats" (a term used in The Wire to describe manipulation of stats to reflect the desired outcome) because, for some schools, it's the only chance they have for survival. NCLB disregards the fact that all schools aren't created equal - there isn't a level playing field to measure from. For any critical measurement, within science AND business, the conditions or environment between test subjects need to be controlled and, if they are different, the conditions need to be taken into account. So 'what is measured' is not the only part of the equation that is flawed, but the results of that measurement is also flawed.

Therefore, A=B C=D E=F, which cannot logically lead to A being equivalent to anything else but B. And the equations are seemingly endless because I have only talked about one particular dimension of the diversity here.

So incentivizing, just like any other tool, has a deeply negative side to it and needs to be connected to a diversity of factors in order to lead to positive ends.



Incentives: the good, bad and the unfortunately necessary

Wedding Incentives on Flickr I know I need to approach this topic with kid gloves because there are many of you out there that either perform good deeds entirely selflessly or many of those that truly believe that you do. I used to be part of the latter group. Then I read The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley and realized something really significant:

Just because a good deed is performed to someone's benefit, it doesn't make the deed any less good.

In fact, as Ridley points out, in the absence of personal incentives to positively contribute to a community, the majority of people would not contribute at all. And there are incentives, even if indirect, to performing good deeds. Even if all of you are in the 0.01% of people who perform good deeds entirely selflessly, think about all of the people you've met in the world you could only convince to give more, do more and care more. Those are the people need incentives - for better or for worse.

I think about how current incentives work. I was chatting the other day with another Matt, Matt Langdon of the Hero Workshop. He was saying to me that he was setting up the Hero Workshop as a non-profit because he would feel bad about making a profit off of this work. Really? Why, I thought? There are plenty of people getting rich off of doing nasty stuff like making cigarettes and selling drugs and lobbying governments to keep us oil dependent. And there are even more people making millions from just producing a load of crap we don't need. Why should the people contributing positively from the world have to take the martyr road? My second thought was, "No friggin wonder it is an uphill battle to get people to do stuff like Matt is doing!" Matt's are rare. Dedicating your life for the betterment of others is a beautiful, amazing thing, but if you can't pay the bills or provide financial security for your family and your future, you will probably end up getting burnt out really fast.

There is no reason for us to be holier-than-thou about our contributions (not to mention the very essence of holier-than-thou points to the fact that we want recognition, which means the act itself is not, after all, selfless). Good for those of us who have sacrificed ourselves for the benefit of the wider community, but we should never become martyrs because of it. We should, instead, be thinking of ways to create more of us to do the work...'cause at the end of the day we have to make a living...or at least I do.

I'm personally overjoyed that people are making gazillions off of the green movement (as long as it's not a hoax). The fact that you can do good AND do well is an amazing incentive and, I think, the tipping point for people to actually start giving a damn...through consumption, yes, but if that's what it takes, I'm all for it. This is America after all. We vote through our consumption...that we have a choice to vote for positive change is awesome.

I've been thinking a great deal about incentives and I think that people like Jane McGonigal and Austin Hill are doing amazing work in this area, incentivizing acts of kindness through gaming techniques. Ethically, people may have a problem with gaming human nature, but I don't. To game towards the good is helluvalot better than to incentivize people towards acts of exploitation, waste, corruption and greed. And, believe me, the long-standing dominant atmosphere favors the greedy.

For the upcoming HeroCamp, I'm going to be concentrating on incentives. Having a 15 year-old who is not in that 0.01% has been eye-opening for me. He's a good kid and very talented and I love him, but whenever I speak of heroism or positively contributing to the greater good, he rolls his eyes at me and calls me lame. What incentivizes him? Well, money is the biggest thing unfortunately, but he also plays games like World of Warcraft, where I watch him sacrifice himself and his points constantly to move his tribe forward. And when I asked him to come to HeroCamp and be our Lame-Meter, he agreed. I incentivized him with a voice...a chance to influence an outcome...a chance for him to shine. Okay, and a few days off of school, too, but that was less of an incentive than the rest. I asked him to be himself and told him that would be a key role in what we're working on. The incentive is ego.

I believe that raising Whuffie is also good incentive that encourages positive contributions. However, I am not so blind as to ignore the way that people exploit this as well. There is an upside and downside of everything. We need to figure out better ways to reward those that are doing good in the world (and sometimes this means that they need to make money from it) and remove the incentives for people to exploit influence in the networks (by making it harder for them to make a living - refusing to buy their goods or read their blogs).

So, in conclusion, I believe that making a better world comes down to building in positive incentives (beyond 'it's the right thing to do') for good deeds and removing the incentives for bad deeds.



The Dark Knight and Darker Questions

This is not a review of the movie I just saw. And I promise not to give much away. However, seeing The Dark Knight tonight has got me thinking about some stuff and I'm actually inspired to write more than 140 Characters on Twitter about it. What I did write on Twitter was: Wow. Being a hero is tough work.

And it is. Certainly, these are comic book heroes and, even in the roughest city I've been in, I've never seen the likes of Gotham's underbelly, so the scenarios are way amplified. But if we were to take it down a notch and remove all of the big scenes and explosions and psycho characters that won't stop at anything to destroy the fabric of society, we may have an interesting metaphor for what it means to be a hero.

So what does it mean?

Well, #1, to be a hero is to be selfless. Whether it is Spiderman or Batman or Wonder Woman or what have you, these characters demonstrate a personal sacrifice for the greater good. My favorite line of all hero movies of all time was from the first Spiderman, where Peter's Uncle Ben tells him, "With great power there must also come great responsibility." Lots of people gain power in our world, but a hero exercises that power for the good of others. Even beyond that a hero recognizes that his or her power gained mustn't be squandered. Idly standing by with gifts is equally irresponsible. #2, to be a hero is to hold true to a code of ethics. Now, this may be misconstrued as many villians in our world may purport to hold true to a code of ethics, but within all of the characteristics of a hero, hurting others for personal or interest group gain doesn't work.

#3, heroism requires action. A hero speaks up where there is injustice. A hero stands up to bullies. A hero will take the bullet when others are afraid. People that talk about being a hero but do nothing when there is much work to be done aren't heroes. They may want to be heroes, but they need to step up to become one.

Sort of like #1, but sort of separate is the ability to be egolessness. This is the #4 characteristic of a hero. There are many heroes in this world that go unnoticed because the work they do is behind the scenes. They don't do what they do because they want fame or recognition. Heroes do what they do because they really want to see change. Many of the heroes I know will point out the heroism of others long before they would even receive recognition for what they are doing.

#5, heroes don't discriminate. The same code of ethics, selflessness, egolessness and action applies to everyone...even to villians. True heroes want everyone to believe. They want everyone to have hope. There are no 'sides' for heroes. When they are fighting villians, it is only to stop them from committing heinous acts against others. When the fight is over, they will reach out to the villian with the same empathy that they would extend anyone. My favorite heroes are the ones that don't intentionally kill anyone.

I don't know if I have what it takes to be a hero. I get scared. I let ego get in my way. I take sides. I totally want to be. I just don't always know that I have what it takes.

But another thing I love about heroes is that, no matter how strong their character is, they question. They falter. They have times where they don't want to be heroes. They want to be "normal". Spiderman has always been one of my favorite characters because, above all else, he is human and terribly torn between the gift he is given and the need for something very real, very human: love. But there is no dating for Spiderman. There is no courting Mary Jane in the manner he wants to. His responsibility is greater than that and for that reason, he must sacrifice that desire.

And, yes, Spiderman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all of the comic book heroes have extraneous circumstances. I believe real-life heroes can have love and live fairly "normal" (whatever that means) lives. But there are sacrifices and it takes dedication. And it can happen every day in all sorts of shapes and sizes of heroism.

Some examples:

  • When someone says something hateful or harmful against another person or group, speak up and say that isn't cool. Help that person examine their biases. Be kind but firm.
  • If you see someone being treated poorly or in a troubling situation, ask if they would like your assistance. Sometimes that person may be too scared or proud to receive, but offer anyway.
  • If you have privileges that are helping you get ahead in life, consider extending these privileges to others who need to get ahead, too. Teach free a class on using computers in a low-income neighborhood. Donate your old laptop to someone. If you have any other skills that could be transfered to others for their benefit, take the time to teach that.
  • Raise awareness on issues. Use your talents to reach an audience through video, Twitter, your blog, your voice online to let people know what is going on. My favorite hero doing this is Beth Kanter. She rocks. Her dedication is unfaltering.

There are hundreds of things you can do big and small to be a hero and these things you do won't always be popular (I'm a regular party pooper in social situations when I shut down racist and/or sexist remarks), however, every little bit helps to keep us from getting closer to Gotham. And we don't need Bruce Wayne's billions or Peter Parker's radioactive spider blood, either. We all have gifts to offer.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention HeroCamp, an event which is to profit nobody attending or organizing it, but a whole schwack of heroes are getting behind the idea of creating programs that create more heroes. That would also be a good step.

So this is not a review, but the movie did impact me. I walked home from the theatre asking myself if I could do it. If I could really be a hero. If I was prepared to be selfless, ethical, egoless, take action and non-discriminatory in my heroism. I hope so. I strive for it. I know I have a long way to go, but I can't imagine living on the earth for any other reason but to reach that goal.

How about you?



Better Barrels and the Creation of (super)Heroes

Brooklyn Superhero Supply on Flickr[Refill your superhero supplies on Flickr by sodapop]

This has been one busy, yet transformational, month for me.

It all started with my participation in TED 2008 in Aspen, Colorado. TED, for those of you who haven't heard of it, stands for Technology Entertainment Design, and it is an invitation-based conference. It is also, bar-none, the most inspirational conference I've ever attended. Inspirational because each and every one of the speakers weren't just talking about small ideas and weren't just doing smart, interesting things. Inspirational because each and every one of the speakers were talking about BIG, earth-shattering ideas and doing incredibly world-changing things. And they all had incredible passion. Incredible. This, coupled with the fact that the attendees were hand-chosen as world-changers themselves made for a really transformative experience.

But the one drawback for me was, because of the prohibitive cost ($3000-6000+) of attending, many world-changers I know of weren't able to be part of it. AND because of that barrier, a smaller group gets moved to the level that I was moved. I sat there wanting to take that energy and spread it to a wider group of people...especially people who may never get to be in that room.

Especially after a talk by Dr. Philip Zimbardo (otherwise known as Dr. Z) on The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

Dr. Z's basic premise is this: There are no 'bad apples', only bad barrels. Inside of each of us is the propensity to act like a hero or act like a villian. He has a great deal of amazing research to back this up. He was behind the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 that took a healthy, nice group of middle-class kids and put them under conditions that led to the kids playing 'guards' treating the kids playing 'prisoners' so inhumanely, they had to call the experiment off. The amount of time to the shut-down of the experiment? 6 days. Similarly, Zimbardo discusses Abu Ghraib as a site for creating a similarly 'evil creation' environment, leading everyday 'nice' soldiers to treat their prisoners with sadism and extreme cruelty and humiliation. The book cites multiple examples around the world, including the awful genocide in Rwanda, where people raped and slaughtered former friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers.

Just writing that paragraph emotionally kills me. But the evidence astoundingly points to the bad barrels theory. Zimbardo does not take the responsibility off of the apples in that barrel, but the evidence that 'nice' people can turn evil is compelling. The beauty of this theory is that it gives us a clue as to the conditions for the creation of evil acts, which we can then avoid, and similarly, gives us a clue as to the opposite conditions: the conditions to create heroic acts.

And that is when it dawned on me: what if we had a *camp to create heroes? What if I put together a (super)HeroCamp to not only create heroes, but to create heroes that create MORE heroes? If I could sit down with many of those people I was missing at TED and come up with a plan to build better barrels....what would happen? So, I set up the wiki page and tweeted my intentions, getting alot of instant support.

So, this August in Vancouver, BC, Canada, a legion of Heroes will gather around the idea to create legions of Heroes. We've picked a narrow area to start with so that we can really focus a program: education. Over the duration of 4-5 days, we will come up with a plan that is easily executable by legions of others and the materials (website, print materials, etc.) that can help anyone interested to this spread it further.

Or, that's the hope anyway. :)

My new goal is to look at creating the conditions in as many places possible to create (super)Heroes and radically subvert those barrels that create villians. Ideas are welcome and your involvement is necessary. I know there are many (super)Heroes that read this blog. :)