• from THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH, June 6, 1997 - "Follies Always a Threat to Education Reform."


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Follies Always a Threat to Education Reform.

June 6, 1997

By William L. Bainbridge

The BEST Coalition and Governor George V. Voinovich have issued a reform plan calling for higher standards in public education, teacher training, parental and community involvement, improvements in buildings, revamping technology and restructuring funding.

This comes on the heels of the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling that the state system of funding schools is unconstitutional. No surprise. DeRolph v. the State of Ohio simply affirms huge discrepancies in funding that have been apparent during our lifetimes.

The concern is that real systemic change be incorporated into reform effects. 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 Steven Kerr, a former Ohio State University business professor now 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 1975, is as instructive today as it was then.

Kerr focused not only on schools but also on the gamut of business, medicine, politics and various organizations. 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 in the 1990’s, numerous examples of the "folly" come to mind.

  • A recent review of grounds for pupil suspension in several states revealed the primary offense was often truancy. There is good reason to believe that frequently truant pupils would not consider suspension from school serious punishment. Patrick Welsh, an English teacher in Alexandria VA, explained that when pupils are out of school they are exposed to "video games, VCRs, 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.
  • While seeking taxpayer funding at the ballot box, school financial elections, school administrators sometimes warn of dire consequences that will result from failure at the polls. If the referendum fails, the "needed" amount of financial support requested in the election often is reduced mysteriously 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 touted as an important ingredient in educational management, but school and college goals and objectives are frequently vague and defy measurement. One program, America 2000, proposed meaningful measurement on the one hand, but 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, said Christopher T. Cross, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education and current president of the Council for Basic Education. He suggested, is for employers to provide high paying jobs for high-achieving students.
  • Teachers instruct pupils about the evils of substance abuse while the school administration provides smoking areas for pupils and staff.
  • Athletic programs are designed to teach teamwork and sportsmanship. Coaches, however, are frequently rewarded strictly based upon winning games rather than teaching skills and values.
  • Although much lip service is given to improving 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. It guarantees financial support for worthy pupils interested in higher education. Well thought out recognition programs, such as those that name a student-of-the-month, have been started 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, traditional symbols of athletic achievement, have a place in the academic and citizenship realms.

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


is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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