Last updated: May 02. 2014 3:51PM - 689 Views
By Mac McPhail Contributing columnist

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It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’m sure my Aunt Betty felt that way. She had been an elementary school teacher for years. She knew how to motivate and handle us kids. She knew how to use incentives to her advantage, or she thought.

My sister and I had spent the night with my cousin, Retta. Being children, we were naturally looking for something to do to occupy our time. And Aunt Betty was looking for something to us busy and out of her hair.

Back in those days, very few people had air conditioning in their home. In the summertime that meant open windows, inorder to try to keep the home from being so warm. Even with screens in the windows, flies could get in the house. So that summer morning, Aunt Betty had an idea to keep us busy and get rid of some flies that had gotten in the house.

“I’ll give you one penny for each fly you kill,” she said. She gave each one of us a fly swat and sent us out on our mission. The mission soon became a competition, and besides, we were getting paid for it. OK, a penny wasn’t much, even back then, but it was an incentive.

There weren’t that many flies in the house, so it didn’t take long to get rid of them. We would stack our deceased flies in little pile and keep track of how many we had killed. Pretty soon all the flies in the house had met their maker. We needed more flies to kill if we were going to make any more money.

This is where Aunt Betty’s plan backfired. We kids decided if we were going to kill more flies in the house we needed more flies in the house. So we opened up the back door and the door under the carport so more could come in. A few came in. But we needed more flies so we could make more money. It took quite a few pennies to get enough to buy a drink and a candy bar. So we went outside and started fanning the flies into the house. When we got as many into the house as possible, we shut the doors and the hunt began again. When Aunt Betty came back home, she couldn’t believe how many flies we had killed. We just took our payment and counted to see if we had enough for that drink and candy bar.

You see, incentives do affect behavior. The problem is that they may not affect behavior in the manner desired. The incentive Aunt Betty offered us, a penny for each fly killed, enticed us to kill all the flies in her house. But it also tempted us to let more flies in so that we could make more money.

Incentives are used often in business, government and organizations. While achieving their goal sometimes, quite often those incentives are ineffective and may even be detrimental to the goals and purposes for which they were intended. Because it is often hard to predict beforehand how people will react to those incentives.

A recent example of incentives gone awry is the cheating scandal uncovered a couple of years ago in the Atlanta school system. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation named 178 teachers and principals in the scandal. In 2009 Atlanta school Superintendent Beverly Hall was named U.S. superintendent of the year. On June 30, 2012, she stepped down in shame.

The cheating scandal centered around the dependence on End of Grade Testing (EOG) for evaluating and rewarding teachers, principals and administrators. The investigators found that teachers and principals actually erased and changed answers in 2009 inorder to improve test scores. Other tactics used ranged from voice inflection and pointing to answers in the classroom to simply changing the answers after testing was complete. They would also place a smart student beside a not-so-smart student and indirectly encourage cheating by the not-so-smart student. Gee, I wonder what that child learned in school that day.

Why did the Atlanta teachers and administrators take these unethical steps inorder for the students at their schools to achieve higher test scores? One word, incentives. If your students did not do well on the EOG, you, as a teacher or principal, were in danger of losing your job. But high test scores led to bonuses. As an example, in one school every employee, from custodian to the principal, received a $2000.00 bonus for high scores on the EOG. (This was one of the schools where cheating was rampant on the tests.) Superintendent Hall received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses during her tenure and the Atlanta school system itself received honors and funding from the Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, based on those unscrupulous test scores.

Even here, as we head toward the end of another school year, there will be emphasis in almost every classroom on EOG testing, because of the incentives for higher test scores. And I wonder how much time the next few weeks will be spent “teaching the test,” rather than teaching to learn.

Yes, sometimes incentives don’t work the way they are planned. Aunt Betty’s incentives only cost her a few pennies. But a few flies in the house are a small problem compared to the cost of students unprepared to face the outside world because of an overemphasis on “testing.”

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