Ignoring bad incentives Posted on May 27th, 2011 by Michael B. Horn

My colleague, Katherine Mackey, and I had the opportunity to visit Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif. recently, where teacher Rich Julian’s 5th-grade math class has thrown out the typical math curriculum and instead given every child their own laptop, adopted the online Khan Academy math curriculum and assessments, and allowed the students to proceed at their own pace through any part of the 5th-grade curriculum.

The results are stunning. Katherine blogged about one aspect here of how much the children work with each other. There are many other fascinating aspects, too, not the least of which was that every single student was on task the whole time we were there (I’ve visited the school twice, and it’s been the same each time).

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A few children have progressed to trigonometry, and one child in another classroom in the district doing the pilot even progressed to calculus and solved roughly 200 straight problems correctly involving the chain rule. The fact that had these children not had this opportunity to escape today’s monolithic, time-bound system they would have been “simply” doing “5th-grade math” amounts to education malpractice.

An obvious question that emerges is why don’t we see more of this happening? This happened in Los Altos because there was great leadership throughout the district. The school board, superintendent, principals, and the select teachers running the pilot all saw the potential, were willing to throw out everything they knew about how schooling worked, and make the leap.

But the reality is there are many disincentives in place for this to happen. It takes people willing to ignore the incentives to make this work. For example, the school, its teacher, and the district don’t get more dollars for having brought students well beyond 5th-grade math; they don’t get credit in any way. The district may even ultimately be penalized if in high school now these students take classes offered at a nearby college and it has to pay for this.

And of course the students themselves still have to take the 5th-grade math exam at the end of the year with all of their peers—even if they have progressed well beyond these concepts, which makes the routine a silly and even insulting exercise governed by the elements of our system anchored in time.

At the Carpe Diem College High School in Yuma, Ariz., another favorite school of mine as readers of our research know, Rick Ogston, who founded the school, says the percentage of special needs and English language learner students drop over time in his school. It’s not because these students leave the school though or because the school cherry picks its students. It’s because that as Carpe Diem helps the students learn and get up to speed, these designations no longer make sense and are stifling to the students. Of course, because our school system pays based on attributes about you and not an individual student’s growth, by removing these designations, Carpe Diem ignores the system’s incentives and forfeits thousands of dollars for doing the right thing. How many people around the country do this?

And this is just the beginning. One way to unlock innovation in our school system and help it transform into a student-centric one is to get out of our own way and eliminate these disincentives. But waiting for superheroes across the country to ignore them is not a sound strategy.

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5 Responses to “Ignoring bad incentives”

  1. I’m a high school physics teacher w/ a more critical view of Khan Academy: http://bit.ly/khancritic Kids should be constructing their own knowledge rather than consuming someone else’s. Interesed in your thoughts.

  2. It would be better to engage directly with the Khan Academy team on this, as they have thoughts that are informed more than mine. That said, what you see in the school that has implemented this is that students work “individually” on their goals and challenges for part of the period, and then they switch and do full class and small group applications of concepts–project-based learning, constructing meaning, applying it to other contexts and so forth. I think you’d see that what they’ve constructed is not an either or but a best of both worlds–ringing true to how we all continue to learn in life, through a mixture of reading, watching, listening, analyzing, doing.

  3. Sure, a handful of 5th graders have progressed to solving trig problems or calculus in a sterile environment. But I would argue that the ability to do the context-less math drills on Khan Academy would not translate to any sort of application of mathematical skill in the context of a real-world problem. This problem is not unique to Khan Academy, the math teaching cross this country is often a series of worksheets and algorithms, devoid of a larger meaning.

  4. Hi Adam — Sal has a more thoughtful response on this and would disagree I think — seeing math as a beauty unto itself that we all too often shirk, just as art and PE are to many students (and it certainly seems that he has sparked that in the students), but to my point in my other comment — what this has really enabled is the teacher to do exactly what you’re talking about and allow them to apply math in that sort of context. That’s the value — to open up time so students can master the fundamentals and then do the rich application to other contexts. And it was quite exciting to watch the students pour into this. I think we need to stop making false dichotomies here, and remember individualization is important, and then doing what a Socrates could do and so forth is also important.

  5. I am a fan of the Kahn Academy, as I am a fan of any initiative that can help move educational performance in the right direction. But doesnt this just come down to innovation teaching strategies? This is not unique to Kahn. 8 years ago i met a geology instructor at Western Washington University who required his students to review his lecture online before attending class. The students then took a quick quiz, the professor analyzed results, modified and shortened the lecture to focus on the parts that didnt stick. And as importantly, to focus it on the areas that students were really intrigued by (make learing interesting). With a minority of time actually devoted to “lecture” in the subsequent class meeting, they spent time exploring in discussion and activities, the interesting and the more difficult parts of the subject.
    Its all about innovativie teaching, i applaud the folks in Los Altos. If Kahn can help move this needle awesome. Dan

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