Incentives Matter

Individuals’ actions are driven almost entirely by the reward, either immediate or long term, that is received from his or her action. Many studies in many different fields demonstrate this seemingly simple maxim. Sociologists and psychologists study its effect on human behavior; economists study its effect on markets and resource use. That incentives matter is nearly unquestionable. From an economic perspective, removing incentives decreases efficiency of business and society and discourages hard work. Again, many examples abound in the Soviet economies of the twentieth century and the state-run economies today. Incentives matter.

Recently while reading Charles Wheelan’s (@CharlesWheelan) book, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, Wheelan reinforced the importance of incentives in a very important way for me as a teacher:

“Meanwhile, American public education operates a lot more like North Korea than Silicon Valley… The pay of teachers is not liked in any way to performance; teachers’ unions have consistently opposed any kind of merit pay. Instead, salaries in nearly every public school district in the country are determined by a rigid formula based on experience and years of schooling, factors that researchers have shown to be generally unrelated to performance in the classroom. This uniform pay scale creates a set of incentives that economists refer to as adverse selection. Since the most talented teachers are also likely to be good at other professions, they have a strong incentive to leave education for jobs in which pay is more closely linked to productivity. For the least talented, the incentives are just the opposite… Any system that pays all teachers the same provides a strong incentive for the most talented among them to look for work elsewhere.”

Wheelan has written about teacher pay and incentives in more detail in his 2000 article for The Economist.

Problem #1– Teacher pay rewards all teachers in similar ways, not at all related to how well teachers do their job. What metrics, other than test scores, could be used to measure and incentivize good teaching?

Another particular incentives-related problem also bothers me. Students receive a fully-subsidized public education K-12, but a free education alone is not enough to bring students to school. States compel students to attend, or else families are fined. Clearly student incentives are not working well either, or else students would attend willingly every day.

Problem #2- What incentivizes a student to come to school consistently and try his or her best? The long-term incentives are great, related to better college and career opportunities, but what keeps students performing their best every day?

A lack of teacher incentives (as producers) means a lower quality product is produced for the market. No choice among services means student (as consumers) must consume a lower quality product with no short-term incentives. Both issues, among many others, produce less than perfect options all while society generally agrees with the importance of public education and spends millions every year to fund this system.

What incentives could reasonably improve the system, from either a producer or consumer experience? I pose this question to my high school IB Economics students. Their thoughts, in relative anonymity, will be posted as part of this blog. I would love to read your comments below, too. I am certain they will provide an engaging start conversation for my students to follow.

Learning Student Names

Yearbook1As a classroom teacher now in my 12th year, I know learning student names is difficult for me. I also know I get very nervous speaking in front of groups, unless I know the audience. So, the quicker I learn the names of students each year, the more comfortable I feel. I suspect the students feel the same way; the quicker I learn their names, the more comfortable they feel.

Some teachers are fabulous at learning student names. I am not!!! I realized I learn names best from repetition, usually from passing back papers. For me sometimes, this does not occur until the second week of school. Until then, I am sunk. To practice repetition, I am trying something different this year. My online gradebook has photographs of most of my incoming students. Why not use this to study… but how? As a student, I practiced mindless repetition through studying index cards (i.e., large amounts of Latin vocabulary or Geometry theorems). I could do the same with student names, since I have the photographs.

I have decided to use an iOS app for flipcards and make a study game out of my students’ names and faces. I reviewed Quizlet, StudyBlue, and Flashcards+ by Chegg against three criteria. It had to be free; it had to allow me to add pictures to cards; and it must allow me to “hide” cards I knew and only practice those I did not know. I found Flashcards+ by Chegg to do all three.

In the Chegg app, you can create your own deck(s) or import common study criteria (great for other classroom applications). I put all of my students into one deck, not a separate deck for each class period. I wanted to make my memorization more challenging, but I also wanted a way to keep the students separated by class. So, I put student pictures on one side of the card and student names + period number on the other side. The Flashcard+ app allows me to sort and practice cards with “period 5” on them (though I just typed “5”). So, I can still practice all the names or just those of a certain class.

The process of using the Flashcard+ app (or any of the others really) does have drawbacks.

Mobile-only setup. In all three cases, I could only set up pictures on cards on the iOS app. This meant I had to save the student pictures to my camera roll, then upload them into the app. This was very tedious. I wanted to create a database in Google Sheets then import (or copy) the data into the app. None of the apps I reviewed let me do this with pictures (text only? yes.). The mobile-only set up is a drawback as I am quicker with this sort of work on a computer rather than a tablet or phone.

Laborious. The setup was not smooth. I have four classes of new students (the fifth class is a returning class of seniors who I already know). Setting up four classes of students took me about two hours on my phone. If not for my extreme handicap learning names, this might have been too long.

Missing faces. Yes, if students move into the district or were for some reason were absent from picture day, their faces will not appear. I have six such cases in my entire roster of students.

Errors. I am sure there are database errors for names of faces or typing errors on my end (hopefully nothing more than a misspelled name). This issue is problematic in any system and should not keep you from setting up electronic flash cards.

So, what do I hope to gain from two hours of set-up labor? I should know all my students’ names on the first day of school. Measure that however you will, but I think it will be awesome. So far, after an hour of “studying”, I know 85% of the names! I was going to struggle for a week (or two) to know some names; now I will be better prepared. What an impression to make! Greet your students at the door with a smile, a handshake, and a correct greeting! For me, the setup was very long, but I will reap huge rewards from this work. Good luck and enjoy your new school year.

The Journey, not the Destination

“If you start doing things for the sake of selling up front, for rewards, then it’s going to catch up with you. The other guys not chasing money are going to outdo you in the end, because real innovation and grit come from loving the process.”

Today my cousin’s son, Jacob, finds out the results of a summer’s worth of soccer practices; does he make the junior varsity team? He has been told by his team mates he was not good enough. He was told he wouldn’t make it. He practiced, suffered, endured, and improved in spite of their discouraging words. Jacob will make the team or not today, and in some cases it is not because he is the best on the field. Other factors, unfortunately, play into the decision. Not to disparage the coaches, but choosing the right players for a team must not be an easy feat. I do not envy the power to make a player’s year while crushing the spirits of another. Jacob, your work on the field is not about the reward of making the team. What you have learned about yourself and your family this summer as you struggled for something difficult- that process, that grit, that determination is your true reward. Regardless of the result, you are not truly measured by outward measured but by those inside.

Rodney Mullen’s quote above comes from a Wired Magazine article on Mullen by Brenden Koerner (@brendan-koerner). Brenden highlights Mullen’s innovation and grit in his desire to make himself better. Mullen noted that much of his truest lessons in life come from his failures, not from his success. Check out his Pop! Tech talk, Getting Back Up.

I recently have started taking students on international travel trips. When travelling with a group of thirty students something is bound to go wrong. You will make wrong turns; get pickpocketed; get nabbed 33 euro a head on the Paris subway (yup); get a terrible bus driver in Munich. But, in all these lesson, the final destination is not the goal. While frustrated beyond belief about some of the wrong turns and diversions on our most recent trip, I remembered to keep my cool. The journey was more important than the destination. If I was a sulky, mad, brooding tour leader, our trip would been miserable though all the destinations would have been the same.

Life is not about the destination but about the journey. Love the journey.

Life is wonderful when the journey leads you where you want to go. Often the unexpected twists and turns bring you to new valleys of opportunity not on you map. Remain open to all these new opportunities. Your life will be better because of them.

Best of luck, Jacob, and all those competing for a spot on a fall sports team. You will not be defined by the results this week; you are defined by how you handle the grit and determination on your journey.

Dweck, Dorfman, and Moyer: Achieving Personal Success

Effort. Grit. Determination. Tenacity. Work Ethic. Competitive spirit.

These qualities, above others, contribute to success in one’s lifetime. Having read Mindset by Carol Dweck as a book study the the inaugural year of the Downingtown STEM Academy (2010-11), I have thought a lot about how these characteristics determine success. I have enjoyed encouraging the growth of my students and my three boys using a growth mindset approach; I never say they are talented or gifted but rather that their success comes through hard work. Their daily practice and constant performance builds success, not sheer luck, “giftedness”, or inherent talent. No book has changed my life quite like Dweck’s book. It is an easy summer read and very important for educators, parents, and athletes alike.

A few years ago, I heard All-Star and World Series pitcher Jamie Moyer speak on NPR about his then-new book, Just Tell Me I Can’t. I was amazed how well his message of determination and hard work meshed with Dweck’s growth mindset, but I am also a bit biased. Moyer played for the Baltimore Orioles in the mid 1990s, when I was a teen enjoying the burgeoning successes of my favorite baseball team. In the late 1990s when Moyer pitched for the Seattle Mariners, I saw him again when the Mariners played the Orioles at Camden Yards. Moyer did not pitch that day, but he did help shag fly balls in the outfield during batting practice. I remember distinctly, standing in the right-center field seats at Camden Yards, and the fans were cheering loudly for Moyer. He turned, smiled, and acknowledged the fans, giving thanks for their support. He tossed many batting practice balls into the stands that evening before the game, a move not common for visiting baseball players. In 2005 I moved closer to Philadelphia, and soon Moyer followed when he was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies. I again enjoyed watching his dominating success as part of the Phillies success and World Series team in the mid 2000s. Perhaps I am biased because of my love of baseball and his contribution to two of my favorite teams, but I really enjoyed his book.

Now, I teach an hour outside of Philadelphia, at a school well-known for its continuing success. A school which encourages academic struggles and determination that leads to personal and school-wide success. Our motto, “Effort Creates Intelligence,” is a snapshot of our school culture. Reading Moyer’s book provided a real-world example of a growth mindset, or as my school distills, how effort leads to success. Moyer’s book is peppered with sports psychology and gems of advice both from Moyer and his mentor Harry Dorfman, who wrote many books about sports psychology, including The Mental Game of Baseball. Below are a brief overview of some of these gems.

“Failure is wanting without work.” -Harry Dorfman

“Believe it and you become it.” -Harry Dorfman

“Learn one thing a day, and learn it well. That gives you a chance to get better, because any problem can be solved. Any setback is temporary, and you can learn from it if you do the work.” -Jamie Moyer

“You can only control what you can control.” -Jamie Moyer (and surely Dorfman)

“Experience isn’t what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” -Aldous Huxley

“When we fail to learn, we’ve learned to fail.” – Harry Dorfman 

Moyer’s book marks a practical example of Dweck’s growth mindset, Dorfman’s mental game of baseball, and precisely how to achieve success in your life, through hard work, dedicated practice, and constant, incremental improvement. Moyer’s example is a refreshing reminder that hard work pays off, and you can control your own destiny when others count you out.

Springboard into Success

In December 2014, I attended the Price Waterhouse Cooper, Knowledge@Wharton High School Seminar for High School Educators on Business and Financial Responsibility. The seminar was as rich in information as the title is long in words. Of the amazing information I received, I attended a session titled “Defining Success: Helping Your Students Navigate Their Future” by Wharton professor and award-winning author G. Richard Shell. His presentation was very engaging, but I thought the emotion tied to his message might fade. You know the feeling- you leave from a seminar presentation alive with ideas, but after returning to work and life for a few days, the message fades. Dr. Shell’s message remains with me still.

Dr. Shell encouraged us, as teachers, to define our own success, and he suggested we avoid following a path of success defined by others. Teachers, he has found, often get into their profession for very virtuous, fulfilling reasons, but some feel the pressure to promote themselves away from what makes them happy. Some pursue careers “up the ladder” toward administration though their heart remains in the classroom. I thought about that message for some time. After receiving my doctorate in education two years ago, I was flooded new paths to pursue. However, when I consider new paths now, I keep coming back to Dr. Shell’s advice; do not promote yourself away from your happiness. I define happiness in two ways: First, being a present, aware father and husband. Second, being a present, aware, and dedicated classroom teacher. While my definition of happiness may change, I am not willing to sacrifice my current happiness for someone else’s definition of success.

Dr. Shell gave each participant in the seminar two copies of his book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for SUCCESS. I generally avoid books about success. I often wonder why authors write about success; if they define success by telling others about success, I am not sure I want to subscribe to their message. But, Dr. Shell’s message was so compelling in December 2014, I started reading his book on train ride home from the seminar. For the remainder of this (just ended) school year, his book stayed on my nightstand. I found his book easy to read and very thought-provoking. I enjoyed reading small sections before bedtime and reflecting about success and its fit in my life. Finally finishing his book (the school year just ended), I can say confidently what I felt from the beginning; I am very happy exactly where I am. I will not do anything to promote myself beyond my happiness.

I am blessed to teach in my dream job, as a teacher at the Downingtown STEM Academy. Our students and teachers continually receive recognition for their amazing work. After reading Dr. Shell’s book, though, I realize my mission might be different. Dr. Shell teaches a success course with students at University of Pennsylvania. He helps them recognize they can define their own happiness and then pursue a path toward it. My school is filled with students with a passionate drive toward success, but I do not know if they understand the path they pursue. Are they on their own path or one ascribed to them by someone else? I would like to offer a year-long success program in my school, following a model described in Dr. Shell’s book. Yes, many of the students in my school are very talented, but I am not sure they know what this success means for them or the community around them. Such an enlightened understanding of their path toward their individual success would be very beneficial to my students.

I strongly encourage you pick up a copy of Dr. Shell’s book, Springboard: Launching Your Personal Search for SUCCESS. Reflect on its message and let it inspire you to define and pursue your own path to success. How do you define success? What can you do now to find success? How will it change who you are and who you will become?

Julia Kivlin Volleyball Tournament, 2015

As teachers, we all know learning is much more than what happens in school between 7AM and 3PM. Learning is also much more than the homework we assign or the extracurriculars in which students participate.

Last evening, I had a blast playing in a staff and student volleyball tournament to benefit the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in memory of Julia Kivlin. Julia passed away before her ninth grade year. I taught Julia’s sister, Kate, and I know the heartbreak of losing a sister to cancer much too young. Last evening’s volleyball tournament was in memory of Julia, who loved to play volleyball.

Three students came to me Friday during school and asked if I wanted to play on their team. The students, outstanding sophomore volleyball players, assured me we would not lose. I have recently found it harder to participate in these events, with a family of young boys, but now that they are getting older, I said yes. Thanks to Sophie, Jasmine, and Mary, our team was awesome. I think it is fair to say Mr. Lowe, Mrs. Gantert-Lee, Emily, and I were just role players. On such a superb team, we dominated. It was not until our last two games that we fought hard. We made it to the final game but were defeated.

Our schools are more than the building we occupy eight hours a day, roughly 200 days a year. We are a community that grows, learns, competes, celebrates, and unfortunately grieves together. To the Kivlin family, Julia will always be remembered because of a strong Downingtown community that will always celebrate her life.


Two years ago, I attended my first EdCamp at its birthplace- Philadelphia! Going in, I was reluctant that I would learn anything new. When I left, I was overwhelmed with new ideas; I have never had that experience with professional development. The EdCamp, unconference model of professional development, opens professional development in a way many teachers never experience.

Rather than the sit-and-get professional development we all experience, EdCamp encourages multi-directional, collaborative, shared experiences from professionals, both leading the session and in the audience. This is the first part of the EdCamp I love. You are expected to contribute. In fact, the leader of your session is not the expert on the topic. It is expected you come to participate, share, and take away new ideas. If you do not participate, you miss out. The second part of EdCamp I enjoy is “the rule of two feet.” If you happen to attend a session you realize is not benefiting you, you are expected to leave and find another session. You do yourself no good to listen to shared ideas that do not apply to your educational situation.

After such a great first experience with the EdCamp model two years ago, I encouraged colleagues to attend EdCampPhilly last year. We had a blast. By inviting some DASD colleagues and their friends, I made local connections, shared great DASD teaching practices, and had a blast.

But now, it’s our turn. Kristie Burk enlisted a few daring individuals to pull together an EdCampDtown. We need your help. First, we need your expertise. Come share the best practices and wisdom you practice every day. Second, be bold. Even if you have not led a work session at a professional conference, come, lead and share. I plan on holding sessions on topics I am not comfortable with, so I can learn. For instance, I love using Google Drive, and I like to think I’m pretty savvy with it. My session will encourage the audience to share best practices with Google Drive. There’s always something new to learn with Google!

So, come on out. Share. I can’t wait to learn with you!

#EdCampDtown Saturday, March 21, 8:30-1PM, at the STEM Academy.