Incentives in Schools: Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Elli Brunts – Period 1

It is safe to say that at least one action completed in someone’s lifetime was done strictly because of the incentives being offered.  Often times, incentives are the driving force behind our actions, and some would agree that nothing would get done without them.  This idea is clearly seen in students, specifically second semester high school seniors.  Incentives are put in place to keep them engaged and motivated as they near the finish line, but do they always work out as planned?  Is it possible for these incentives to backfire?

Let’s look at if, when, and how incentives may or may not work when it comes to schools.  In the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Gneezy, Meier, and Rey-Bie state, “large enough incentives clearly work in the short run and even in the middle run, but in the longer run the desired change in habits can again disappear.”[1] Take Ursuline Academy for example – seniors, by maintaining an average of 90 or above and accumulating no more than three absences, are eligible to be exempt from their final exams.  This criteria incentivizes the students and keeps them in class and working hard – two things that are very important to their education – but do they always work?

While these incentives have the potential to keep seniors on track, it is very possible for them to backfire.  When there are few evaluations left and the final is on the line, some seniors may be tempted to cheat in order to achieve at least a 90 grade average.  According to Stanford’s Academic Cheating fact sheet, “grades, rather than education, have become the major focus of many students” and this isn’t even when exemptions are at stake![2]  Another unintended consequence of the exemption process is seniors attending school while sick.  Unwilling to rack up absences that would result in them taking their finals, seniors bring their illnesses to school for everyone to catch.  In situations like these, the exemption criteria turn into perverse incentives, or “the inadvertent incentives that can be created when we set out to do something completely different,” – giving seniors motivation to cheat. [3]   Finally, extrinsic, or outside, motivation, tends to reduce intrinsic, or self, motivation, for “these incentives can crowd out intrinsic motivations in the short run and the long run.” [4]  Therefore, as more stress is placed on exemptions, the will to actually learn withers.  While the purpose of putting the exemption incentives in place is to keep seniors learning and working, when they motivate students to cheat or come to school sick, they actually threaten to hinder ones’ education and drive to learn.

Ultimately, when it comes to the incentive of not take one’s final, there is a choice to be made. As humans, our goal is to maximize our utility, therefore, the choice is simple, what brings you more utility? [5]  Working hard now, and not taking the final later, or relaxing and accepting the idea of taking another test.  It is the desire to relax AND be exempt that poses the threat of perverse incentives.  The incentive of exemptions has good intentions, but the school “failed to anticipate how rational individuals might change their behavior to avoid being punished,” making it a bad policy. [6]   Incentives should be individualized so the school can avoid problems they can cause.

 

[1] Gneezy, Uri, Stephan Meier, and Pedro Rey-Biel. “When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior.” Journal of Economic Perspectives: 191-210. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://rady.ucsd.edu/faculty/directory/gneezy/pub/docs/jep_published.pdf.

[2] Jaffe, David L L. “Academic Cheating Fact Sheet.” Accessed March 27, 2017. https://web.stanford.edu/class/engr110/cheating.html.

[3] Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 36.

[4] Gneezy, Uri, Stephan Meier, and Pedro Rey-Biel. “When and Why Incentives (Don’t) Work to Modify Behavior.” Journal of Economic Perspectives: 191-210. Accessed March 27, 2017. http://rady.ucsd.edu/faculty/directory/gneezy/pub/docs/jep_published.pdf.

[5] Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 6.

[6] Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, 39

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