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Teachers cheating and Incentives

Dan Ariely, below, on how taking something as broad as education and reducing it to a simple measurement has a lot of consequences. Ariely belives that 

The mission of teaching, and its evaluation, is incredibly intricate and complex. In addition to being able to read, write, and do some math and science, we want students to be knowledgeable, broad-minded, creative, lifelong learners, etc etc etc. On top of that, we can all readily agree that education is a long-term process that sometimes takes many years to come to fruition. With all of this complexity and difficulty of figuring out what makes good teaching, it is also incredibly difficult to accurately and comprehensively evaluate how well teachers are doing.

Now, imagine that in this very complex system we introduce a measurement of just one, relatively simple, criteria: the success of their students on standardized tests. And say, on top of that, we make this particular measurement the focal point of all evaluation and compensation. Under such conditions we should expect teachers to over-emphasize the activity that is being measured and neglect all other aspects of teaching, and we have evidence from the No Child Left Behind program that this has been the case. For example, we find that teachers teach to the test, which helps the results for that test go up but leaves other areas of education and instruction (that is, those areas not represented on the tests) to fall by the wayside.

And how is this related to dishonesty in the school system? I don’t think that teachers are cheating this way (by themselves changing answers, or by allowing students to cheat) simply to increase their salaries. After all, if they were truly performing a cost-benefit analysis, they would probably choose another profession—one where the returns for cheating were much higher. But having this single measure for performance placed so saliently in front of them, and knowing it’s just as important for their school and their students as it is for their own reputation and career, most likely motivates some teachers to look the other way when they have a chance to artificially improve those numbers.

It’s interesting, as Dan points out, that the outrage over teachers cheating is much greater than the outrage over the damage that mis-measurement in the educational system has caused.

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Dan Ariely is the best-selling author of The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home and Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.