Wickedly Enticing Incentives

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Katie Mentesana — Period 3 — Honorbound.

As Ursuline students write “Honorbound” at the top of their work, they are reminded of all the consequences of cheating. These consequences can include being sent to Honor Council, getting an infraction that remains on their transcripts and is sent to colleges, having to get to school early to serve detention, being kicked out of school, and developing a bad reputation. None of these options sound good, right? These consequences act as incentives to get the students to abide by the school’s Honor Code and turn in work that is fully and truly theirs. What exactly is an incentive? According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, an incentive is “something that encourages a person to do something”. In the case of the Ursuline Honor Code, the incentive for students to not cheat exists to assist the students. According to “Freakonomics”, written by Levitt and Dubner, incentives come in “three basic flavors…economic, social, and moral” showing that there is not just one way for an incentive to work. Incentives are powerful tools that can often provoke or tempt people into acting a certain way.

An example of an incentive is: The rising cost of electricity provides a strong incentive to conserve energy (Merriam Webster). Another example of an incentive is: A company is offering a special low price as an added incentive to attract new customers (Merriam Webster). In economic terms, the incentive many times offers an outcome that is favorable for both the producer and consumer. For instance, in the second example the company that is giving good deals to the customers is gaining a respectable reputation and the new customers are benefitting from having less money come out of their pocket. Both parties benefit from the incentive; however, this is not always the case.

Although the intentions behind incentives are usually good, sometimes they can backfire and cause unexpected results. In the article, “What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?” from Freakonomics the author describes a study of a day-care center. Because parents kept picking their kids up late from school, the school decided to charge the parents three dollars per child for every time they were late. The incentive behind this charge was for the parents to be on time. Instead, the plan backfired. Instead of having less parents picking up late, there were more parents running even later than usual.  The parents no longer had the guilt of running late because they were paying for their child to be there (“Freakonomics”). Obviously the school was not expecting more parents to pick up their kids later, so they had to readjust the system. It is stated in the article that, “the world has not yet invented a problem that he cannot fix if given a free hand to design the proper incentive scheme” (“Freakonomics”). That is the thing though; incentives do have schemes or intentions behind them in an attempt to control one’s actions. Depending on how the person views the object of the incentive, it can often alter one’s actions in negative ways.

Even teachers would cheat if the incentive was right. Yes, you read that correctly. Even teachers would cheat. You may be wondering: Why would a teacher cheat? They are not the ones who are up in the late hours of the night trying to cram before a huge test the next day that will determine their academic fate. Well, as it turns out, according to Freakonomics, in recent years several public school teachers have been caught cheating. The reason for this is that more pressure was put on the teachers to have their students score higher on their state exams due to new law requirements.

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For example, as Levitt and Dubner point out, “The Chicago Public School system embraced high-stakes testing in 1996” (“Freakonomics”). According to this new policy, schools that had students receiving low readings scores would be put on probation, and possibly shut down. As this new policy hit the ground running, teachers panicked. Teachers would be one of the main figures accountable for the school’s probation because they are the ones teaching the children the material that is covered on the tests. If school is suspended, not only do hundreds of children go without an education, but the teachers may be dismissed or forced to resign due to the lack of funds. Another law that was passed by the Chicago Public School system increased the test score that a student needed to receive in order to move up to the next grade level. In California teachers were bribed with the incentive of an additional $25,000 if their students produced “big test-score gains” (“Freakonomics”). Wow! An extra $25,000 is a huge incentive to have the teachers work harder. What happens when the teachers put forth their best efforts to teach, yet the students are still scoring low on their tests? Let’s face it. The stakes have risen. And these stakes are high. No teacher wants to give up their money, so these teachers turned to cheating for their students. As explained in “What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?” Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the public school teachers that are cheating for their students can go about the crime in several ways. Some cheating techniques included correcting wrong answers, making the test unquestionably easy, and flat out giving their students the answers. Think about it. When people are desperate enough to risk getting caught, the incentives must be great. Even though it may not be the moral thing to do, “cheating is a primordial economic act: getting more or less” and if the high stakes and incentives are right, there is no telling what actions people are driven to perform (“Freakonomics”).

The influences of incentives are not just causing the teachers to act unfairly, but they are robbing the students of their education.

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When the federal government passed laws to have the public school students perform at a high level, teachers shook in their boots. The fact that their students had to score higher results on their tests in order to move on to the next grade level was frightening. The teachers were put under pressure. All eyes were on them; they had to prove themselves as great teachers by improving their students’ test scores, or their jobs would be in jeopardy (“Freakonomics”). What these teachers did not realize, however, was that their cheating led to a greater issue that is continuing to this day.  While thinking about getting ahead in their career and receiving a bigger pay check, the teachers were blind sighted by the fact that cheating for the students was extremely detrimental to their education. Because the students were not earning the high scores on their tests based on their own merit, they will unfortunately have to pay for this later on in their academic careers. Incentives can be wicked. Children with the cheating teachers had their education robbed from them and there was nothing they could do about it. People see the outcome they want and may make rash decisions without thinking about how their actions are affecting others along the way.

A group of Harvard Business School students found this to be true when they wrote an analysis of a study about incentives and unintended consequences. It stated that a “heavy reliance on performance goals to motivate workers can create problems instead of encouraging performance” (“Incentives”). This perfectly describes what happened with the parents that picked their kids up late from day-care and the teachers that ended up cheating. The incentives did not fulfill their goal; instead, they unintendedly led the people to perform in an unexpected way. The study observed how mortgage brokers and loan originators were on commission to meet unrealistic sales goals (“Incentives”). Because of the inability of the workers to complete the task, the banks ultimately triggered their own demise. The incentives encouraged the workers to make risky and bad loans. What the Harvard students found is that there is no way to predict the behavior of those given an appealing incentive to meet an improbable goal (“Incentives”). To avoid the risk of their workers behaving unethically, managers should try to limit, if not avoid, the use of incentives as bribes.

Many incentives stir up motivation within people; for instance, Ursuline’s incentives not to cheat encourage the students to expand their creativity and knowledge by themselves rather than plagiarizing someone else’s work. Ursuline’s system of punishments, or incentives not to cheat, is for the greater good of the student. In this case, the punishments may seem harsh, but will ultimately benefit all of the students. However, in cases where the teacher is cheating to obtain the promise of the incentive, more money, harm has been unjustly committed. Changing answers for their students not only cheated the system, but also the students. In this case, the incentives moved the teachers to act without thinking of the consequences. Incentives are powerful and should be approached with caution.  Instead of becoming blind sighted by the goal of the incentive, think about the necessary steps and actions it would take to get there. Everyone is faced with incentives daily. Wanting an expensive pair of shoes is an incentive to save your money. Knowing that you can only watch the television after your homework is done is an incentive to get started on your work. The question is: If putting the goals of incentives ahead of something important, such as education, how much damage will people allow incentives to cause? After all, “If economics is a science primarily concerned with incentives, it is also—fortunately—a science with statistical tools to measure how people respond to those incentives” (“Freakonomics”). How much power and influence should we allow incentives to hold?

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