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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 02/ 1/2010

Willingham: 'Race to Top' a doomed bribery scheme

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
When I was about 10 years old I was supposed to clean my room each day, which meant that each day I tried to find a way to get out of the house before my mother discovered that I hadn’t done so. Tired of nagging me, my mother offered me fifty cents a week to keep it clean. So then my goal changed from sneaking out of the house to preventing my mother from discovering that I had merely shoved all my junk under the bed.

This reminds me of the "Race to the Top" initiative.

Why would the federal government hold a grant competition for states? Either because states lack money, or because they lack conviction.

States might lack money, meaning that they have good ideas for how to improve schools, but cannot carry them out because of tight budgets. With a grant competition, the Feds could pick the best ideas and fund them.

Alternatively states might lack conviction, meaning they know what ought to be done, they just don’t have the political courage to do it. The grant is essentially a bribe to get them to do “the right thing.”

It’s quite obvious that "Race to the Top" is a bribery scheme. The secretary of education and the president believe they know what ought to be done, and they are offering money to states who do it. (Indeed, they are confident that their ideas are “research based,” although I haven’t met many researchers who think the data are at all clear on this point.)

It’s easy to deduce the administration’s stance by looking at the criteria by which the "Race to the Top" grants will be evaluated, included as an Appendix to the application form. If the point of the grants were to collect good ideas and fund them, there would be a lot of information in rubric defining what makes an idea good, and little or nothing about the content of the idea.

Instead, you gain points in the "Race to the Top" evaluation rubric by measuring student growth, conducting annual evaluations, ensuring that teachers and principals are distributed “equitably” through the system, and so forth. The open question in the grant application is not what you’re going to do to improve schools. It’s how you’re going to implement the administration’s ideas.

The likely failure of the "Race to the Top" initiative doesn’t depend on whether or not these ideas are any good.

Here’s the problem. States are not really committed to the reforms the administration envisions. If they were, they would have implemented them, or at least they would have been making a game attempt to do so.

When you pay people to do something, they don’t become motivated to do it. They become motivated to be able to defend that they are doing it. States will do their best to make it appear that they are complying.

This was one of the more important lessons of the "No Child Left Behind" act. To whatever extent you believe it worked, it’s obvious that the impact was lessened because states gamed the system. There is no reason to think that the "Race to the Top" initiative will be any different. The administration is motivating states to shove their dirty laundry under the bed. Eventually that will be discovered, but in the meantime we will have wasted a lot of time and money.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, Race to the Top  
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While I understand the criticism...the solution for states is simple:

Don't like what the govt. is doing? Don't take the money. At least this time around it's voluntary.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 1, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Let's face it, the traditional education crowd will always have something to gripe about.

-They said NCLB was too punitive.

-So, now that the Obama admin. has offered incentives instead, they call it "bribery".

The reality is that there are firmly entrenched interests in education who just don't want to see any kind of change.

Sadly, there are many in education who let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Posted by: holzhaacker | February 1, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

This is Obama's attempt to outflank the teachers' unions who see their demise in charter schools. He's not attacking them head on; instead he's using these bribes to cajole the states into entering the fray.

An unneeded, expensive tactic, but clever.

After all is said and done, a lot more will be said than done, and we'll still be graduating millions of dummies who won't pay taxes, will depend on the guvmint to take care of their every need, and will reliably vote Democratic.

Mission accomplished!!

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | February 1, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree with you more.

RttT is external cosmetic surgery for a patient that needs a heart transplant.

Real reforms would include looking at the structure of the school day and school year.

Real reform would mean that all subjects were given equal importance,(especially at a time when job creation and entrepreneurship is at the top of the agenda).

Real reform would mean smaller class sizes and examining the effectiveness of smaller schools. Real reform would mean that student reading assignments, especially elementary, were about subjects they were interested in...sports, music, etc. (Who cares what they read in K-5 language arts...the idea is that they LEARN to read. There is plenty of time for other, more substantive, reading assignments in social studies, science, secondary school, etc.)

Real reform would eliminate the temptation to teach to the test. Real reform would not put a pacing schedule ahead of a student's ability to learn. And real reform would allow teachers a seat at the table...not heard or seen only in the "butler's pantry."

If public education were so important to politicians, we wouldn't have to beg for funding year in and year out....good times and bad.

People don't go into teaching for the money. Sure salaries are lower than they should be (which in and of itself indicates society's disrespect for the profession), but but people enter teaching because they love the subject that they teach and want to share their enthusiasm with others. They want people to be "educated." But if politicians think competition for $$ is the ONLY enticement to improve the public schools, then their distorted view of education and teachers is how we got into this mess in the first place.

No teacher wakes up in the morning thinking of ways to make their students hate school. And no one finds pleasure in failure.

Posted by: ilcn | February 1, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Daniel Willingham:

This line from your editorial is gold -"When you pay people to do something, they don’t become motivated to do it. They become motivated to be able to defend that they are doing it."

This is public education. You are laser-guided right on the mark.

Posted by: GSN1787 | February 1, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

"All that I am, I owe to my Angel mother." I guess in your case, you owe a lesson in how to misapply incentives to your mother. To be exact, "bribes" are used to motivate someone to do something they should not do or something "bad." You are talking about "incentives." Your mother's incentive made you change your behavior. The problem was that she did not make the contingency clear and you took a shortcut. Either she did not follow up, or she was happy with a apparently clean room. That is not an indictment of the technique, it is a breakdown in applying the technique.

The government has rarely applied an incentive properly, and that may be the problem, but we should give them a chance. They are trying to get people to do the right thing with a positive plan. They should get credit for that.

But incentives are a tool, and tools can be applied properly or improperly. The tool is what it is, and if you want to go around criticizing screw drivers, be my guest. I would prefer commentary on the real issue.

Posted by: jimco66 | February 2, 2010 8:43 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Willingham - Expanding upon your example – what if after you shoved your junk under the bed, a structural condition causes cracks in the ceiling that cover your room with plaster fragments and make it unsafe to sleep in there. Would your mom even dream of cutting your allowance over that? And would she give your brother a higher allowance if there were no cracks in his bedroom ceiling?

From your post, it sounds like you’re aware of the new book “Drive” by Dan Pink. It’s about decades of largely ignored academic research on what truly motivates people (intrinsic rewards). It’s definitely being ignored by our Secretary of Education in his Race to the Top.

Here are some recent interviews with the author:

And here’s a Harvard business school research working paper on the same subject:

Posted by: efavorite | February 2, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

@holzhaacker: the solution that I’m afraid the states will try is to take the money but do what you want anyway, while pretending to do what the govt. asks. Also, I have no objection to incentives if there is good reason to think that they will work.
@Curmudgeon10: I agree, I think Obama is likely trying to outflank the teacher’s unions. I am also afraid that he has bought into the idea that if the unions are against it, it must be a good idea.
@jimco66: point taken—“bribes” is the wrong word. Larger point: I agree in principle that it’s worth trying incentives, if we had confidence that the measures we were persuading people to try were going to work. I think that the administration’s confidence far outstrips the available data.
@efavorite: like jimco66, I can see the Sec. Ed’s point: “Look, you guys don’t seem to be open to reform, so we’re going to make it worth your while.” In other words, from Duncan’s point of view, states *ought* to be intrinsically motivated, but they don’t seem to be. . .so he’s trying something else. But again, I think the mechanisms he’s championing will let us down.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | February 2, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

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