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Editorial: Hitting the target but missing the point

September 24, 2019

Lance Armstrong has become known as one of the world’s most notorious cheaters.

Armstrong doesn’t believe he’s a cheater. When he confessed his doping activities to Oprah Winfrey, he explained that the definition of cheating is to gain an advantage over a rival, and he didn’t view his actions that way — he viewed them as a part of a level playing field. Armstrong attributed his actions to a ruthless desire to win at all costs; a desire that served him well on a bike, but ultimately caused his unceremonious downfall.

Cheating is common in a world that focuses on winning. For example, in 2000, in the U.K., Tony Blair’s government allocated money to the British public service based on agreed-upon targets. Inquiries into this so-called “target world” found examples of “creative compliance.” In its 2002 report, the UK Commission for Health Improvement related the case of one particularly creative hospital in which too many patients were waiting too long in emergency wards, causing it to be in danger of missing its target for quickly finding beds for patients. The hospital met its target by removing the wheels from gurneys, effectively turning them into beds. A senior civil servant characterized this incident of cheating as “hitting the target, but missing the point.”

“Target world” may be coming to Alberta. The recently released report by the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances recommended that the government review and revise the education funding formula to provide incentives for achieving better outcomes. This is a bad idea, first and foremost because it would ultimately exacerbate inequality by providing those schools and students that need the most support with the least amount of funding. Furthermore, it would not incentivize performance as much as it would incentivize cheating.

Take the case of Georgia’s State Department of Education, which in 2010 suspected rampant cheating after it analyzed erasure marks on test bubble sheets and found that changes from incorrect to correct answers were inexplicably high in some schools. The state ordered an investigation.

Of the worst offenders, 21 of the 27 were from the Atlanta Public School District, where in four schools, 80 per cent of classes were flagged for cheating. Could the $2,000 cash bonuses (a.k.a. merit pay) given to teachers at schools that met improvement targets have had anything to do with this?

Daniel Pink, a renowned academic on motivation and the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says that traditional if–then rewards tend to produce the opposite of what they are meant to achieve. A rewards system extinguishes intrinsic motivation, diminishes performance, crushes creativity, fosters short-term thinking and encourages cheating.

The more a system is based on rewards and winning, the more people will cheat. Armstrong didn’t feel bad about cheating because he saw it as part of the system, part of a popular culture that worships winners.

Cultural values are incredibly powerful, so we need to be very careful about the types of culture that develop in our schools. Cultures based on ruthless competition divide people into winners and losers. A system that rewards simplistic measures of achievement is inherently creating winners and losers. Some will win by cheating, and people who lose in the system can become disenchanted and quit. Such a culture damages the core task of public education — preparing all learners for life.

Although some welcome increased competition in education, teachers must focus on collaboration and reject a culture of competition and the bad ideas, like performance incentives or merit pay, that come with it. ❚

I welcome your comments — contact me at

This editorial is adapted from one originally published Jan. 29, 2013.

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