Problem with Incentives, Pt 2

In addition, though focus on incentives and tests may bring short term results, long-term benefits may be sacrificed. For instance, the morale of students and educators may be negatively impacted, as I believe it has. Later learning may also be negatively affected as the joy, meaning and sense of achievement and growth is lost. As learning is reduced to trivial, superficial or narrow activities, the desire to learn now and in the future is sacrificed.


Numerous examples of incentive systems producing unintended or contradictory results abound. Some examples are given in the section on the demoralization of the professions and institutions. For instance, when sales or business people are rewarded for earnings, it encourages unethical practices and self-interest over the interest of the customer or the company. In health care, when cure rates and amount of procedures performed are rewarded, health professionals are discouraged for taking higher risk patients and encouraged to perform more procedures, regardless of the best interests of their client.


These distortions and corruptions are already found in education related to high stakes tests, even though incentives are still relatively small. Examples of teaching to the test, gaming the system, cheating and manipulating results are prevalent, though at present very few salaries, benefits or jobs are affected. One way to limit these problems is to look at other indicators of performance that are not tied directly to the incentive measure. We should expect some increase in the indicators such as the high stakes tests being used to determine quality, however; is there a similar increase in other comparable performance measures that are not tied to high stakes.


The committee of the National Research Council found from a review of studies of test-based incentive programs, including NCLB, that they have not had the desired effect of bring the United State achievement levels internationally and that high school exit exams have decreased graduation rates without increasing achievement. Their recommendations for policy and research states, “The modest and variable benefits shown by test-based incentive programs to date suggest that such programs should be used with caution and that substantial further research is required to understand how they can be used successfully” (2011, p. S-4).



About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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