Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame has shown that, when teacher's pay is linked to the the performance of their students on standardized tests, they are prone to cheat -- I mean the teacher's cheat. Levitt's data from Chicago suggest that about 5% of teachers cheated to get bonuses and other goodies. A recent New York Times article shows that this problem persists, and tells a rather discouraging story of a principal from Georgia who "erased bubbles on the multiple-choice answer sheets and filled in the right answers." And if you look check out the Freakonomics blog, there is evidence that Australian teachers cheat too.
The kind of pressures that educators face aren't just financial incentives (although that alone is plenty of pressure as many systems reward only the top performers no matter how well everyone else does), they also risk being fired, demoted, or their schools may lose accreditation, be put on probation, and in some cases, closed for poor performance
The Times article offers an interesting quote that has implications beyond education:
John Fremer, a specialist in data forensics who was hired by an independent panel to dig deeper into the Atlanta schools, and who investigated earlier scandals in Texas and elsewhere, said educator cheating was rising. “Every time you increase the stakes associated with any testing program, you get more cheating,” he said.
I found this quote to be interesting because a related implication is that, the more pressure that people face for performance, the more likely they are to cheat. Perhaps the most extreme case are winner take all games. Just watch how soccer players in the World Cup fake severe injuries to draw fouls again and again, even though they have barely been touched by opponents or not at all.
To this point, BPS research reports a new study by Spanish researchers that shows the dangers of winner take all incentive systems. The experiment entailed online completing mazes but divided subjects into two conditions. In the first condition, students were paid based on how many mazes they completed. So, there were incentives, but not competition or severe pressures to succeed. In the second condition, subjects were only paid if they completed more mazes then the other five members of their group -- so it was winner take all. The subjects in the winner take all condition didn't perform any better, but they cheated more (the researchers figured out a clever way to catch them), especially if they were poor performers or women.
As the researchers conclude:
'It turns out that individuals who are less able to fulfill the assigned task do not only have a higher probability to cheat, they also cheat in more different ways,' the researchers said. 'It appears that poor performers either feel entitled to cheat in a system that does not give them any legitimate opportunities to succeed, or they engage in "face saving" activity to avoid embarrassment for their poor performance.
After years of reading research and working with organizations of all kinds, I have learned to become very wary of winner take all incentives. Or as often happens in organizations, systems where the top performers get the lion's share of the money and their more ordinary peers get a few crumbs. These systems not only encourage cheating, unless they are managed with extreme skill, they also undermine cooperation because, "If I help you, it means I am less likely to succeed."
Well, whenever I write about these kinds of problems, people ask me what the alternatives should be, and I confess, that is a tough question. But I do think that a few guidelines are useful:
1. When in doubt, anoint a higher percentage of your people as "winners" and a lower percentage as "losers"
2. When in doubt, err on the side of smaller differences in pay between the top performers and everyone else.
3. Define superstars as people who help others succeed ,not who stomp on others on the way to the top.
Those are my three. Do you have other guidelines to add? This is a tough problem and every organization that I know struggles with such issues.
P.S. The article summarized at BPS is: Schwieren, C., & Weichselbaumer, D. (2010). Does competition enhance performance or cheating? A laboratory experiment Journal of Economic Psychology, 31 (3), 241-253
P.P.S. Also see this great article by Chip and Dan Heath on "Why Incentives are Effective, Irresistible, and Almost Certain to Backfire."