Race to the Top reminds Dan Willingham of his mother’s attempts to get him to clean his room when he was 10 years old. At first, young Danny’s goal was to get out of the house each morning before Mom found out his room was a mess. Tired of nagging, Mom offered him – sorry, incentivized him – with 50 cents a week, so he changed his ways. Now his goal was to get out of the house before Mom saw all the junk he’d pushed under his bed.
It’s obvious, Willingham writes at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, that like his mother’s attempt to make him a tidy boy, Race to the Top is “a doomed 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,” he writes.
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.
The likely failure of the “Race to the Top” initiative, Willingham writes, doesn’t depend on whether the reforms embedded in the program are any good, but rather the inherent flaws of its incentive structure. “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,” Willingham concludes.