Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hitting the target, but missing the point

This was written by Jonathan Teghtmeyer who is with the Alberta Teachers` Association. Jonathan tweets here. This post first appeared on the Alberta Teachers` Association website.

by Jonathan Teghtmeyer

Lance Armstrong is a cheater.

If I had written that a few months ago, I’d have had the pants sued off me. But since Armstrong admitted to doping in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the chances of a lawsuit have greatly diminished.

Armstrong doesn’t believe that he is a cheater. He explained to ­Winfrey that the definition of cheating is to gain an advantage over a rival and he didn’t view his actions that way—he viewed it as a part of a level playing field. Armstrong attributes his actions to a ruthless desire to win at all costs; a desire that served him well on a bike but ultimately caused his unceremonious downfall.

Cheating is common in a world that focuses on winning. For ­example, in 2000, in the U.K., Tony Blair’s government allocated money to the British public service based on agreed-upon targets. Inquiries into this so-called “target world” found examples of “creative compliance.” In its 2002 report, the UK Commission for Health ­Improvement related the case of one particularly creative hospital, in which too many patients were waiting too long in emergency wards and, conseque-ntly, the hospital was in danger of missing its target for finding beds for patients in a timely manner. The hospital met its target by turning gurneys into beds by removing their wheels. A senior civil servant characterized this incident of cheating as “hitting the target, but missing the point.”

In another case, in 2010, Georgia’s State Department of Education ­suspected rampant cheating after it analyzed erasure marks on test bubble sheets and found that changes from incorrect to correct ­answers were inexplicably high in some schools; the state ordered an investigation.

Of the worst offenders, 21 of the 27 were from the Atlanta Public School District, where in four schools 80 per cent of classes were flagged for cheating. Could the $2,000 cash bonuses (aka merit pay) given to teachers at schools that met improvement targets have had anything to do with this?

Daniel Pink, a renowned academic on motivation and the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says that traditional if–then rewards tend to produce the opposite of what they were meant to achieve. A rewards system extinguishes intrinsic motivation, diminishes performance, crushes creativity, fosters ­short-term thinking and encourages cheating.

The more a system is based on rewards and winning, the more people will cheat. Armstrong didn’t feel bad about cheating because he saw it as part of the system—part of a popular culture that ­worships winners.

Cultural values are incredibly powerful, so we need to be very ­careful about the types of cultures that develop in our schools. ­Cultures based on ruthless competition divide people into winners and losers. Some will win by cheating, and people who lose in the system can become disenchanted and quit. Such a culture damages the core task of public education—preparing all learners for life.

Although some welcome increased competition in education, ­teachers must focus on collaboration and reject a culture of competition and the bad ideas, like merit pay, that come with it.

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