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Notes on a scandal

• Alexis Flowers

There has been a lot of recent discussion about the Atlanta school cheating case that indicted 35 Atlanta school officials and teachers. This column attempts to highlight some “lessons” that can be learned from the recent cheating scandals.

In one of his more offensive points, the author writes, “When you set inflexible benchmarks like that and then attach financial incentives for teachers and administrators to report annual progress—and threats of dismissal if they don’t—it’s a subtle if not open invitation to cheat.

First of all, I think it’s a shame the school officials and teachers decided to cheat, not only to the detriment of themselves, but also to their students. I think they should be appropriately penalized for their actions, and further steps should be taken to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen in the future.

However, I think that sort of reasoning by the author is both flawed and ridiculous.

Incentive and reward systems comprise the foundation of a well-functioning society. In most professions, there is some kind of financial motivation for good performance, as well as negative consequences for poor performance. While some instances of “cheating” may occur on a small scale, the reward/consequence system has generally worked well as a motivator.

For example, many athletes and athletic coaches have reward systems factored into their contracts. Coach Rick Pitino will receive a $425,000 bonus for leading Louisville to the NCAA National Championship game. There is also a “Performance-Based-Pay” program in the NFL where players can earn additional pay based on their performance during a season. For all (ten of) you NHL fans, there is an entire list of performance based bonus items that could be included in a player’s contract. It includes everything from goals scored, to league rankings, to winning the Stanley Cup. These sorts of incentives create a more fun, competitive sports atmosphere, while encouraging athletes to perform at their best.

In the movie Die Hard, John McClane spends most of the movie trying to outsmart a German terrorist who has taken over a Los Angeles office building. He has extra incentive to get the bad guy (Professor Snape), and quickly, because his wife is one of the hostages. If he fails to apprehend the terrorist, the lives of all of the hostages are at stake.

Florida has a partnership with The College Board that allows the state to provide free PSAT exams to all Florida 10th grade students, which helps to recruit high-performing students into advanced placement (AP) courses. To create additional incentives, schools and teachers whose students pass one or more AP exams are rewarded with financial bonuses. The financial reward incentivizes teachers to TEACH their subject, not to cheat their way through the course.

Florida passed a bill in 2011 which created Florida’s new teacher evaluation system. With this new system, half of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on how much students learn during the school year. Initial data from the Florida Department of Education shows the demographics of the students in a teacher’s classroom have no bearing on a teacher’s evaluation. A teacher with a classroom of gifted students, for example, does not have an advantage over a teacher with a classroom of students with disabilities. While the evaluation system will likely have kinks to work out in the early years of implementation, I believe it’s a fair, professional way to evaluate such an important occupation. And, if the system is fair, there’s a lot less incentive for someone to cheat.

There will always be those who cheat the system, take advantage of others’ hard work, or lie in order to gain something they think they deserve. While the situation in Atlanta is unfortunate, I don’t think it’s a reason to shy away from accountability systems entirely, or to paint a reward/consequence structure in a bad light.

Besides, if it’s good enough for Coach Pitino, it should be good enough for the rest of us too.

About the author

Alexis Flowers

Alexis is a Policy Analyst for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She joined the Foundation staff full time after working as a legislative intern during the 2011 Florida session. A recent graduate of Florida State University, she studied Risk Management/Insurance and Economics and graduated cum laude in the fall of 2010. She’s a second generation Floridian, and will begin pursuing her Masters in Applied Economics at Georgia Southern University this fall.