What Are We Incenting?

Posted 03.05.2010

Diane-ravitch There was an interesting interview this week on NPR’s Morning Edition with a former assistant secretary of education, Diane Ravitch. Ravitch was a vocal supporter of the No Child Left Behind program that put performance standards in place for school districts across the country. Based on her research and observation over the past several years, she now opposes the policy and has written a book called The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

One of the things that intrigued me about the interview was Ravitch’s take on why she thinks the program has failed. She says it’s the combination of measurement and punishment. Of the two, she has no problem with measurement. In fact, she supports it. Her point is that when there is punishment like job loss or school closures associated with the measurement, the players in the system are incented to game the system. According to Ravitch’s analysis, the effect of this in No Child has been for some school systems to dumb down their student testing or to adjust the scoring scale so it looks like their results are better than they actually are.

Her other point is that the measurement and punishment approach encourages competition between systems rather than collaboration and sharing of best practices.

The interview got me thinking about the misuse and misunderstanding of incentives in other domains such as managing organizations. A few weeks ago, I posted a short video on Dan Pink’s new book, Drive. In discussing what motivates people, Pink argues that carrots and sticks rarely work over the long run and leave a lot of productivity and innovation on the table. To really motivate others, Pink says, we need to focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose.  Obviously, that requires a lot more nuance and skills than just applying carrots and sticks.

It makes me wonder, though, what would happen in organizations if there was a serious, fresh look at how we incent performance? What are your thoughts and experience on what incents people to perform at their best?

Listen to the interview with Diane Ravitch.