"Revisiting the Folly." By William L. Bainbridge. School and College. April 1994.


by William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.
President & CEO, SchoolMatch

Leaders make a major error when they sustain reward systems that "pay off" for one behavior even though they hope dearly for something else. This point was driven home eloquently by Dr. Steven Kerr, currently at the University of Southern California, nearly two decades ago. His article, "On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B", published in the Academy of Management Journal in December of 1975, is as instructive today as it was then.

Kerr did not focus on schools and colleges only, but covered the gamut of business, medicine, politics and other organizations as well. His point was that, "...whether dealing with monkeys, rats or human beings, ... most organisms seek information concerning what activities are rewarded, and then seek to do ... those things, often to the virtual exclusion of activities not rewarded ... Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that behaviors which are rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage while the behavior he desires is not being rewarded at all."

When we look at the state of management of schools and colleges in the 1990s, numerous examples of the "folly" come to mind.

  • A recent review of grounds for student suspension in several states revealed the primary offense was often truancy. There is good reason to believe that frequently truant students would not consider suspension from school serious punishment. Patrick Welsh, an English teacher in Alexandria VA, explained that when students are out of school they are exposed to "...video games, VCR's, cable television, sex in the afternoon and cars..."
  • Administrators are frequently sent into bargaining sessions with teacher groups encouraged to "hold the line" on salary increases. In many cases, the negotiating administrators' personal income levels are directly tied to the percentage of increase awarded to the faculty. Even the most ethical and high-minded individuals must feel compromised when placed in this position.
  • When faced with school financial elections, school administrators sometimes tell of dire consequences which will result from failure at the polls. If the referendum fails, the "needed" amount of financial support requested in the election is often mysteriously reduced with no explanation given to the public.
  • According to Dr. Theodore R. Sizer at Brown University, some teachers "...make treaties with students in which teachers agree not to demand much of them if the students agree not to be disruptive..."
  • Boards of education have been known to press administrators to take on "dirty jobs" such as closing schools or transferring entrenched personnel. Many superintendents and former superintendents have interesting stories to tell regarding the board's negative reaction when complaints are lodged as a result of such board-directed actions.
  • Accountability is tauted as an important ingredient in educational management, but school and college goals and objectives are frequently vague and defy measurement. Even the "AMERICA 2000" program, on the one hand proposed meaningful measurement and on the other proposed an unobtainable goal that "by the year 2000, every adult American will be literate ...".
  • Few employers even look at high school transcripts and those who do seldom link wages to success pointed out Dr. Christopher T. Cross, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education and current Executive Director of the Education Initiative of the Business Roundtable. A better solution, he suggested, is for employers to provide high paying jobs for high-achieving students.
  • Classroom teachers instruct students about the evils of substance abuse while the school administration provides smoking areas for students and staff.
  • Athletic programs are designed to teach teamwork and sportsmanship. Coaches, however, are frequently rewarded strickly based upon their success in winning games rather than teaching skills and values.
  • Although much lip service is given to improving student achievement, few efforts have been made to closely tie job or college entry prospects to accomplishments in secondary schools.

Fortunately, we can get past the "folly". We at SchoolMatch are encouraged by positive efforts such as the "I Know I Can" program which guarantees financial support for worthy students interested in higher education. Well-thought-out recognition programs such as "Student of the Month" have been implemented in many schools. High schools and middle schools seem to be catching on to the notion that awards such as trophies, medals and tee-shirts - the traditional symbols of athletic achievement - have their place in the academic and citizenship realms as well. The "Work Link" project of Educational Testing Service makes high school transcripts and other information about student achievement available to employers. The national Employment Management Association Foundation has created awards for school/business partnerships which encourage students to engage in occupational fields where businesses need qualified employees. Researchers at UCLA's Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing even experimented with providing students with incentives such as payment for correct answers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In the day-to-day pressure of managing the educational enterprise, focus on the larger picture in terms of motivating students and their teachers would appear to be of utmost importance.

Dr. Bainbridge heads SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.