Ignoring Incentives

OK, here is my question:  Do the folks in this article understand incentives and simply ignore them, or are they truly ignorant?

In a move that would make zero a grade of the past, the Chapel
Hill-Carrboro school district is considering making 61 the lowest grade
for a failing assignment.

The goal would be to assure that a single
test-day disaster doesn't ruin a semester. Some teachers, students and
parents say the change would coddle failing students....

Homework would not count for more than 20 percent of the quarterly
grade, according to the proposal. Other proposed revisions include
giving students more time to make up incomplete assignments while
offering more support strategies, making it easier for them to pass.

[would] have a chance to recover," Martin said. "Getting a bad grade or
having a bad day does not mean you are a failure. This is about hope."

There is simply no way this is going to help, and it is amazing to me that educated people can't see it, yet I think that is the case (I don't believe they are trying to be evil)  A staggeringly large percentage of what goes awry in the world can be explained by bad or mismatched incentives, so it is incredible to me that our education system seems to so consistently resist teaching this topic.


  1. Booklegger:

    I had a teacher who used something not dissimilar to grade his students. He would take your lowest test grade and raise it to 60 to prevent mathematical elimination, on largely the same reasoning used by the folks here. I would note his version was less stupid, because he'd only do it once; Get two zeros, and you were on your own.

    This said, Chapel Hill? ZOMG Hippie Central. Carrboro? Even more Hippie, if that's possible.

  2. M. Hodak:

    Understanding incentive effects is 90 percent of economics.

    "Perverse incentives are endemic"

  3. Bob Smith:

    You know one should never judge liberals by results, only by intentions. They intend to give "hope", and that's what matters.

  4. bobby b:

    Dissent. On weekly 100-point tests, where people are jockeying around within single-digit ranges, both a 49 and a 1 represent a pretty serious failure to learn a weekly topic.

    But the 49 leaves someone still in striking range of a final grade that says "I'm not one of the shop kids", while a 1 effectively kills your ability to get the numbers back up. A 1 kills the student's chances, and thus kills the student's motivation to work harder on next week's topic so he can catch up.

    When the Twins lose by one run, they get a loss posted. When they lose by 80 runs, they get a loss posted. We equalize like that in many instances.

  5. CB:

    Then I suggest baseball change to a win/loss system per inning. That way when your opponent gets 5 runs in a single inning it only counts as a single inning loss and doesn't put you 5 runs down and too far behind to catch up.

    But seriously, I am a bit out of touch with the school system. How does a student "earn" a single digit score? Not showing up? Staring at ths ceiling the whole time? If a student studies for just 10 minutes before a test - crams a few questions - surely they can score better than single digits. My point is, if scoring single digits is mainly achieved by completely blowing off the test then you can't possibly give a student a higher score.

  6. Speedmaster:

    "Do the folks in this article understand incentives and simply ignore them, or are they truly ignorant?"

    I wonder about this all the time, I call it 'cretin or crook?' ;-)

  7. Jim Collins:

    I had a Professor who had a simple but effective system. He gave 6 tests per term, he would count 5 and throw your worst score out. The 6th test was a cumulative test on everything taught in the term. If you had good scores on the other 5 you didn't even have to show up for the 6th. On the other hand, the 6th was a chance to make-up for a bad score. Worked pretty good.

  8. Another guy named Dan:

    bobby b:

    Re: "I'm not one of the shop kids"
    Check out the expected salary at age 30 of a plumber or electrician vs. an English or Sociology major.

    In high school I was pretty sure I was going to go into mechanical engineering. I drove my guidance counselor nuts trying to schedule AP physics, calculus, and metal shop in the same semester.

  9. Mark:

    I think some of the comments demonstrate the number one problem with our K-12 school system: it is a one size fits all type of system that pretends that everyone attending school is going to go to college and study some liberal art. Because of this our schools do a fine job of educating no one. Even the college bound students are not educated properly because the myth of the college bound student for all waters down the education to the least common denominator. Of course, the children who drop out of school are the least served because by pretending that they are going to be "scholars" means that the basic skills that they should be educated on receive short thrift.

    Our school systems, to be competitive through the next century, needs to drop the egalitarianism that pretends everyone is the same. It needs to educate those going an academic route with an academic curriculum. It needs to identify those going a vocational route with intense vocational skills and apprenticships. And, those that will not advance very far need to be identified so that they can get a condensed education with adequate reading, math, and social skills that can serve them in their lives.

    Maybe a long time ago education was cheap and we could accept the mediocre results that it delivered. But, in modern times education is not cheap and is in fact very expensive. In my home state we spend more than $10,000 per year per pupil in our K-12 system. THe results we get clearly do not match the funding. How the taxpayers in my state accept this is unknowable to me.

  10. Sol:

    I can't recall ever scoring in the single digits, but I did get a percentage score in somewhere in the 20s on the second midterm in my third semester honors calculus. Mind you, I'd gotten 100% on the previous test, and I don't recall anything much in the way of the extenuating circumstances. It was just a hard test with only three (big) problems on it, and I completely flubbed my attack on two of them and just flailed miserably for the entire class period. Cheesed me off so much I went and declared math as my major the next week. I did well on the final and ended up with a B for the course, as I recall.

    Oh, I did skip an econ 101 test altogether once because I stayed up until 5 am partying the night before, and my grade was good enough going in that a 0 couldn't hurt me enough to affect my final grade. (Econ 101, like first-year physics, is trivial if you have a decent math background.)

    Hmmm... not sure what conclusion to draw from those two observations.

  11. Dan:

    Meanwhile, a small high school in Ohio announced recently that the senior class has 21 valedictorians.

  12. CB:

    And the rest of the Ohio class feels even worse since they couldn't make the "top 21" instead of not being #1.

  13. Alex:

    "Our school systems, to be competitive through the next century, needs to drop the egalitarianism that pretends everyone is the same."

    One provider, one system. The government can't help but be inflexible. Not only is it hampered by an inefficient bureaucracy, but it should and generally does presume people are equal. This is a good thing as long as it sticks to enforcing laws against coercion. A government that fails to routinely operate under this assumption would be arbitrary and cruel. The solution is not to invest more discriminatory power in government, but to get government out of education in the first place.

  14. SunSword:

    Overall, another argument for home schooling.

  15. Rob:

    What was the argument used that let the federal gov't become in charge of K-12 education, in the first place?

    SunSword, maybe it is more of an argument for privatization of schools.

  16. Jim Collins:

    I agree with you to a point. Where I start to disagree is your statement about identifying who is on what track. Our current system of education pretty much requires that someone who "wants" to go to a "top college" makes the descision at the age of 14. How many 14 year olds really know what they want to do with the rest of their life?

    Our current education system is a scam. I just finished going back to school for a Bachlor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering last year. A full 1/3 of the classes I was required to take had no bearing on engineering. I asked my advisor about why these classes were required, he gave me some speil about "turning out well rounded individuals". Give me a break. The only reason these classes are required is as a "welfare" program for the Liberal Arts. Let's face it. The number of people who would want to take these classes isn't enough to pay for having them, so they make them manditory.

  17. Anonymous:

    "The only reason these classes are required is as a "welfare" program for the Liberal Arts. Let's face it. The number of people who would want to take these classes isn't enough to pay for having them, so they make them manditory."

    Actually, it's welfare for the university. A person with a Sociology PhD doesn't cost nearly what a person with a MechE PhD does, and the Sociology department doesn't have expensive lab equipment to buy and maintain.

    Not that I particularly enjoyed my humanities/social science classes, but...

  18. Mark:

    "How many 14 year olds really know what they want to do with the rest of their life?"

    That is not the point. The fact is that by the age of 14 and even earlier it is very apparent from many different types of sources who is going to go to university, who is going to go to college, who is going into a vocational career and who is going to drop out. I think any dispute to my claim is baseless.

    I am not going to dispute the fact that there are a handful of "late bloomers" that could slip through the cracks. But, what type of cost-benefit analysis is that? That there are a few people who do not fit in means that EVERYONE ELSE should have an inferior education not structured for their educational needs?

    If we give up such pretenses then we can RADICALLY imporve the education for everyone. People going to higher and higher levels of academics will receive an appropriate education. People going into business and technical type of skills will receive a different, but equally appropriate education. People going into trades and vocational occupations will likewise receive an education more tailored to their needs. Even people who will terminate their education at the 9th or 10th grade level will receive an education that is appropriate for such a path.

    Right now, this is not happening. High performing adedemic students are being held back and receiving a minimal education from what they could and should be receiving. People interested in business and other technical skills are getting into college with absolutely no idea of what they know or who they are. People wanting to be plumbers and electricians must pursue costly education beyond high school for these vocations. And students who drop out have received but minimal basic reading and writing skills.

  19. Dr. T:

    The original article omits an important piece of information: the lowest passing grade in that school. In my daughter's school, the lowest passing grade is 70. A 61 would be an F grade, but it would not have the devastating impact of a 0. The "61" policy is just a logical extension of the process of grade compression that has gone on for decades.

    When using a 100 point scale divided into 5 grade ranges, the logical breakdown is 0-20 F, 20-40 D, 40-60 C, 60-80 B, and 80-100 A. (That scheme was used by my organic chemistry professor who expected an average score of 50% on his tests.) My daughter's high school has the ridiculous scheme of 0-70 F, 70-75 D, 75-85 C, 85-93 B, 93-100 A. In this scheme, it makes sense statistically to change the F grade range to 61-70. The "61" policy is the mathematical equivalent of giving every student 61 points at the start of each exam or assignment. It seems absurd, but there seems to be no way to convince professional educators that children to not gain self-esteem when given high grades, they gain self-esteem when they earn high grades.

  20. DKH:

    Regarding the points above about a sociology PhD vs. a MechE PhD:

    Someone was comparing the costs of one against the other. A MechE PhD may cost more than a sociology PhD, but I also wonder who brings more money to the school? Intel will provide grants for engineers; I doubt they are doing the same for sociologists.

    Admittedly, I don't have statistics on this, but it is a factor to consider in inspecting the net costs.