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Time to retire the carrot and stick

Time to retire the carrot and stick

School teachers and administrators are cheating to gin up the scores of their students on standardized tests.  So reported the New York Times last week.

The reaction to this story is predictable:

Fire the bastards!

Another example of the lack of accountability in our public schools!

Our children are being taught by cheaters!

Motivation in public education has always defaulted to the “carrot and stick” form.  (What are grades, after all, if not carrots and sticks?)

But in the past few years,  carrots and sticks have increasingly been applied to teachers and administrators. If student test scores achieve certain arbitrary levels, the educators are rewarded.  If not, they’re punished.  Punishments can range from public embarrassment to financial penalties.

Here’s the dirty little secret:  Carrots and sticks don’t create sustainable performance improvements. For one thing, it’s absurd to imagine that such a Band-aid approach — targeting only one of many sources of student success or failure — can solve a problem as complex as American public education.  And worse, carrots and sticks encourage exactly the type of gaming and cheating we see in teachers who are now under the gun to create higher test scores to avoid negative financial consequences.

This is not my opinion.   This is science.  Studies of human behavior consistently affirm the long-term folly of coercing others through systems of reward and punishment.  (In the short term, these strategies of course succeed well — if all you want to produce is obedience.)

Studies of human behavior consistently affirm the long-term folly of coercing others with rewards and punishments.

The best school isn’t that different from the best business.  In these “best” organizations, leaders and staff together decide on a powerful vision, and then pursue that vision because it’s meaningful to them.

Fostering world-class education in the US isn’t about getting teachers to comply. It’s about getting them — and their students — trained, excited, and pointed in an energizing direction.  No Child Left Behind and other programs like it are ham-handed efforts.  Real improvements happen when there’s a creative effort in place, a vision of excellence, and a focus on the pride of doing things well, rather than the pressure of complying with bribes or threats from on high.

The Everett School District in Everett, Washington, has in recent years improved their high school graduation rate from 53% to 84%. This is a staggering achievement.

It didn’t happen through financial rewards or punishments.  It happened because thoughtful people were motivated to do better.  Their solution was surprisingly simple:  they got involved in the lives of the kids who were at the highest risk of dropping out, and they coached and supported them in a positive direction.  No one in Everett is getting a big bonus because this happened.  It happened because the people of Everett decided it was important.

So, when we look at the New York Times story about the test score cheating, my reaction is this:

Of course!  Studies of human psychology predicted this would occur. It happens whenever a vision of excellence is imposed by one group on another group. It happens when the carrot and stick take the place of the natural human desire for excellence and achievement. It happens when people misjudge deeply complex sources of a problem, and try to fix it with a Band-aid.   It happens when we imply that teachers aren’t motivated by the right reasons.  They are.

For more on the subject of motivation, see my business partner’s blog post last week.  It’s illuminating.

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

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