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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.