Ever Been Punished For Succeeding?

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Ok, someone ‘splain this to me.

My daughter goes to public school in New York City. And, while the Big Apple isn’t known for having a super-stellar system, she happens to go to one of the top-rated schools in all 5 boroughs.  We love it, she loves it, everyone loves it.  The parents are massively involved and care deeply about the school, its programming and the teachers.

So, why did the city just cut $250,000 from it’s budget for next year?

That’s 5% of the entire budget and the school already relied upon substantial fundraising from the parent association to keep it humming along.

Before you say, “well everyone is hurting and every school has to share in the burden,” let me add one more fact.

Our school budget was cut disproportionately MORE than others, BECAUSE of its stellar performance.

It seems the quest for exceptional family involvement and the pursuit of excellence are not rewarded, but rather punished.

What kind of message is that sending to the administration, the teachers, the parents and, eventually the kids?  Hold us all accountable for exceptional performance with one hand, then smack us with the other every time a kid gets an A.

Has anyone else experienced something like this? How did you handle it?

Am I missing something?

Let’s discuss…

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33 responses

33 responses to “Ever Been Punished For Succeeding?”

  1. Brennan says:

    I feel for you Johnathan. Have you ever read Ayn Rand? If not, try reading Atlas Shrugged… the main theme being that the Atlases of the world have very little incentive to try their best under communist/socialist/progressive financial practices.

    “So what you’re saying to me as a teacher is that if I teach the kids better than my peers, my school will have less funding to teach future kids?”

    These kinds of financial ideas have their hearts in the right place, but severely lack success in practical application.

    My opinion is that we’re near the far end of the pendulum swing towards the “everything must be ‘fair’ and PC” side of philosophy. If enough parents like yourself complain and as more and more parents feel that their kids cannot be adequately rewarded for success, hopefully our society will become less afraid of rewarding true success and calling out true failure.

    I live in MA and our practices are very similar…I have no good answer to “how can we deal with it”.

  2. Everything in public education is about “equality”. You can’t pay good teachers more than mediocre or even bad teachers because the union rules say so. Instead, they reward seniority, i.e. “running out the clock until retirement”.

    Your daughter’s good school “needs” less money than bad schools do. Of course this creates perverse incentives for schools to blow their budget and then some, but not to spend the money effectively.

    John Stossel did a 20/20 thing called “Stupid in America” and he compared Belgian public schools to American public schools. The key difference was that in Belgium public money goes with the kid to the school of their choice. This introduces market competition: bad schools close, good schools expand.

    School districts create real estate market distortions, incentives for wealthy areas to create their own districts, and trap poor families in bad schools.

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  4. Mary says:

    I think this does make sense, if you turn the dilemna upsidedown. Say extra money was available in the budget, would you give it to the schools that were doing best, or would you give it to the ones that needed to improve the quality of education they provide? So, while its tough for you, when budgets are reduced, the priority for funding has to go to the children, and hence the schools, that are currently being “left behind.”

  5. Daniel says:

    I agree with the dismal state of public education across the board, but this post seems a bit over reactive. I’m sure that the school system was not thinking, “Oh they’re doing great, let’s just cut their budget.”

    Taking a broader look at the schools at large, your school should be excited to be at the top of the game and try to tackle the new challenge that’s arising from more limited resources.

    Much like the driver who passed you at the stop sign, I’d recommend a little less “why are they doing this to ME” and a little more “where can we go from here.”

  6. Jean Ann says:

    I would like to point out that this certainly doesn’t stop here…there are other times in life where we are punished for being successful. Think about siblings, the one who struggles is given more attention and resources than the achiever. In work life, sometimes a more powerful, successful subordinate is fired because they are threatening to the top manager.

    Systems generally try to keep stasis. By reducing success and propping up failure, none of us are required to deal with the discomfort and ambiguity of change.

  7. Laurie says:

    I was in a position this past year as the elementary science coordinator for our district. The ascpects about my personality and skills that made me good at my job were things that my boss didn’t like. I was “not a match”. I served the teachers and the principals at the schools and they thought I was wonderful at my job. Our stated science scores were at an all time high yet I “was not a match”. I think that not being a match, at least in my bosses eyes, was what made me good at my job. My boss’s idea of a match is too limiting. So what’s a mismatch to do? Start her own business where she is the perfect match!

  8. Don says:

    Liberalism at its finest. Take from and punish success, and give to the “left behind” as progressives call it(entitled, lazy, etc). Yah it’s harsh, but that’s reality.

    Ever wonder why the “left behind” never seem to ever get ahead despite all that they are given?

  9. While it may not make much sense in terms of adding incentives, it does have a certain logic to it. You’ve got two kids, one is healthy and the other is sickly. When the budget is allocated, who do you think should have the most money spent on their health?

    As a famous rabbi said in another context, “I came to heal the sick, not the healthy.”

  10. Joshua–there’s a difference between healing the sick and hurting the healthy. One of them is how you allocate EXTRA resources, the other is whether or not you keep things sustained or take away their sustenance. Keeping fewer people healthy just redistributes the problem.

    If you keep hurting the high achievers then someday there won’t be any more high achievers and we’ll all be middle of the road. Or at least that’s the end that this sort of logic leads toward.

  11. Richard Howes says:

    Brennan makes an interesting point that mirrors my own views: the the politically correct world we live in caters to the weakest members of our society at our peril.

    Now its not that I don’t understand the reasoning behind the decision, or why political correctness has become so focal. What I fear for is what moving away from ‘survival of the fittest’ towards ‘protecting the weakest’ will mean for the human race in the long term. I may be cynical but I think there is already a large body of evidence hinting at exactly what the consequences will be.

    Life, and living, is a competition whether competing is politically correct or not. Pandering to the weak at the expense of the strong will have dangerous and far reaching side effects.

    Richard Howes
    From a game farm in oOuth Africa.

  12. Richard Howes says:

    Thats a game farm in South Africa!

  13. Neil Simpson says:

    There is a similar approach to schooling in some parts of the UK.

    I work with the education sector and they have just announced plans that children & young people, not in education or training will be “encouraged to re-engage” by being taken horse riding, to music recording studios, out door adventure centres etc.

    This means that for disruptive kids who have no interest in school, they get to do cool and exciting things, while the kids who work hard get to do exams and be put under the huge stress of the UK’s over tested schooling system.

    The way I see it, this just seems to be rewarding non-achievement and anti-social behaviour….hilarious isnt it?

  14. Jonathan Fields says:

    Great discussion as always, gang. Some further thoughts, replies and questions…

    @ Mary – the analogy of where you’d allocate extra money, in the case of a surplus, doesn’t work for me. It’s a different situation, because you don’t have to take from one to give to another, you simply continue to give to one, while giving more than was previously available to another.

    @ Daniel – Actually, it appears the school system WAS thinking ““Oh they’re doing great, let’s just cut their budget.” And, I am all for a challenge, but one of the critical differences between a challenge that motivates and a challenge that demoralizes is the perception of “doability.” Even with tireless work on the part of the parents association, the school raises a small fraction of what was cut and every penny of that was needed BEFORE the cuts.

    The gaping hole this creates in the budget is actually not even remotely capable of being filled on even a modest scale, no matter how hard the parents work. You have to remember, this is NYC, not a wealthy suburb where parents can dip deeper, should they choose.

    People have taken to protest and letter writing campaigns to the mayor. In fact, pretty much every kid in the school has written to the mayor to tell them how the cut will affect the school. But, because of the fact that this budget cut can only be remedied by cutting teachers and programming that makes the school great, the net affect is not to incentivize action, but to disincentivize action. Rather the cuts becoming a motivating factor, they serve as a hugely demoralizing factor for both the PA and the school.

    And, you’ve gotta know from this blog, I tend to be the one who always bucks the odds, rallies against convention, pursues the unattainable. But, this time, even I am feeling a sense of defeat.

    @ Joshua & Jared – I like the healthy and sick kid story and the Rabbi’s quote, but it’s not analagous. Here is why. The scenario you offered assumes that the healthy kid will stay healthy, while you tend to the sick one. As Jared alluded to, here, tending to the sick one necessary makes the healthy kid sick, too, or at least sicker than before.

    @ Everyone – I completely understand, there is no easy solution here.

    Think about this from a basic behavioral standpoint. You’ve got a kid who’s getting B’s in school, so you reward them. Then, one day they come home with all A’s…and you ground them for a week. What do you think is going to happen on the next report card?

    Much as we’d like to think we’ve outgrown basic stimulus/reward behavior as we get older, the harsh reality, it’s built into our fiber, it’s human nature. People don’t work harder to achieve goals they’ll be punished for achieving.

    But, the bigger picture problem with disproportionately taking from a school that performs well is that you demoralize the people who have worked really hard, shared their passion and often taken money out of their own pockets to make it outperform.

    This action not only mandates deep cuts in what makes the school so good, it further disincentivizes all the people in the community from doing all those extra things that make it so great.

    The message sent is, “the better you make your school, the more we are going to hurt you.”

    In the end, it leaves large numbers of people, both outside and within the school, left saying, “why bother?” And that’s not a mindset that motivates greatness.

    As I said, had the cuts been painful, but modest enough that the faculty and the parents could say, “this hurts, but we see a way to work harder, do more, raise more and overcome it,” that would have been different. That is a challenge that causes some pain, but because the task at hand is perceived as doable, it’s pain that motivates.

    Here, though, because the task is perceived as insurmountable, that pain becomes pain that demoralizes and motivates not working harder, but giving up.

    Will I personally give up? No. But, I am also not your average bear when it comes to stuff like this.

    Okay, that was a lot. I am still open to ideas, thoughts, solutions. What am I missing here guys? You are my worldwide think tank…

  15. This is a really tough issue, and I have been on the other side.

    Where I went to school in Texas, schools are punished for performing poorly. The high school I went to never met test score or attendance standards and so more money and options were taken away every year. The school finally got shut down this year. There is no perfectly fair answer, everyone wants to make sure their child’s school is doing well. But some schools have a parent base that donates time and money and some do not, this is just reality. My high school did not have school dances because enough money could even be raised to hold one dance in the gym. There is a limited supply of money and it has to go somewhere. A school like yours has an active parent volunteer base than can help fill the gaps, other schools don’t. I think it makes sense to give the money to other schools.

  16. Lauren Cobb says:

    My daughter’s school just won a great award as one of the finest high schools in our state. Largely on the strength of the faculty. Now they have to cut 5 million out of the county education budget so they are cutting faculty – and they are cutting the faculty that are the longest tenured, best teachers – because their salaries are the highest.

    Makes perfect sense right?

  17. Don says:

    Lauren- I may have read it wrong but does longest tenured = best teachers from what you are saying? I can tell you that I know many teachers that are doing very well due to tenure and don’t have incentive to be the best they can be as long as they stay on long enough. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but can you see how this mentality can lead to lack of drive to be a great teacher?

  18. Jes billings says:

    I submit that schools are not left behind –they lag behind on their own (lack of) efforts. I spend nearly a quarter of a century working in a statewide organization supporting public school boards, and left demoralized and depressed. The tenure system for teachers and the promotion system for superintendents and principals are designed to protect the incompetent. And, in the end, the children whose parents care intelligently move ahead and the rest are truly left behind. With a fairly in-depth knowledge of the process, I finally concluded that — with a few exceptions — local school boards are the worst possible way to run schools and state legislatures are the second worse possible way. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I’m not sure what the answer is — merit-based pay for everyone involved would be a step in the right direction.

  19. Shama Hyder says:

    Hey Jonathan,

    Sorry to hear this!

    I have been a BIG fan of educational vouches for a while now. That would allow parents do decide which school their tax money should go to. I feel that’s the ONLY fair thing to do.

    If that was the case, schools would be competing to get better and better. Great schools would be rewarded by more tax money.

    However, this bill has never been able to get passed.

  20. Tom says:

    The biggest problem with the public schools is that they’re run incredibly inefficiently. They’re top-heavy and there’s no incentive for the administrators to make the students their top priority.

    Hey Carl Icahn, forget Yahoo, become a school superintendant and start slashing from the top. The schools would then be forced to operate efficiently, the teachers would be recompensed based on their talent, and the students would be in a position to succeed wildly.

    Or the schools would just be moved to India!

  21. Angie says:

    Yep, I’ve got a similar story. There is one student that goes to an academy that does not recognize the wonderful things a student may do. The student I’m referring to started a drive to collect money instead of treats for hurricane relief, turned it into a national drive, was on the national news. As a result of her efforts, she was chosen to receive a wonderful award from a company that recognizes young students. She was given a medal by an official. Normally, these are done at a school awards ceremony, but the school she went to does not believe in highlighting a particular student – they do not want anyone to stand out from anyone else. I thought it was horrible, given the fact that someone could think of such a nice thing to do to help others and then to be told she shouldn’t have any recognition. Shame.

  22. Whatley says:

    Look at the tax system, the better earner you are the bigger portion you have to pay. Equality only is sought to bring people down to a lower level. If raise your head above the crowd some one will want to chop it off.

  23. Troy says:

    Unfortunately, this happens all the time in organizations. I once worked for an organization where my manager was actually trying to find ways to spend money on needless things, because if he didn’t spend it, his budget would be cut, and he couldn’t risk having a lower budget the next year. As ridiculous as it sounds, he was ‘rewarded’ for spending frivolously on stuff for his department.

    No wonder we are facing a financial crisis in this country. Change must begin at the top (Washington DC), otherwise it won’t happen to the level that is necessary.

  24. Richard Howes says:

    @ Angie – The problem with no recognition in schools, no competition, everyone is equal, is that it makes everyone equal to the ‘weakest’.

    As I commented before, I understand why the PC world we live in promotes this. The problem for children is that they become adults and live in the real world.

    This real world is competitive. We are competing in business, for jobs, for husbands/wives, and generally for survival in tough economic times (like now).

    The only societies were adults are ‘protected’ in this way is in communist/socialist societies and history has proven how successful that model is (NOT).

    Maxism is great in theory, as is this new philosophy of non recognition and non competition. But Marxism and other ‘nanny’ systems neglect human nature at their peril.

    America is a super power because of its capitalistic history and the fierce competition it promotes. Yes, there are some casualties but overall the society progresses and prospers.

    Without the capitalistic, competitive nature that made America and Britain the powerful nations they were in the mid 20th century we would all be living under the shadow of the Swastika.

  25. Karl Keefer says:

    The problem is that administrators all too often try to throw money at their problems. Since there isn’t any more funding coming from the state level. The administrators need to get money from somewhere to feed the failing schools in other areas.

    I don’t know what you should do.

  26. riva says:

    Punished all the time for succeeding. Just seems to be my personal karma. I know you are talking more about organizational success, but the fact is that people/organizations are less worried about those who are already succeeding and figure they can do it on their own. It’s similar to what happens with budgets. If you overspend you get more the following year. If you underspend, you get less. Maybe that isn’t a perfect example, but you get the drift. No good deed goes unpunished. And overall, I think the issue is both a universal and a personal one . It happens to schools, organizations, businesses and people. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. (Downward dog comes to mind.)

  27. Jonathan says:

    The public school system is a sick joke. It does more damage than anything else, and rewards mediocrity in more ways than one.

  28. Bob Collier says:

    You could always join the ‘home education movement’. It’s booming. My wife and I took our son out of school five years ago when he was seven. It was a private school, one of the best, but, figuratively speaking, it was taking the teachers an hour to teach my son what he could learn for himself in five minutes – not only because the teaching methods were painfully behind the times but also because everybody had to wait for the slowest students to catch up before they were allowed to move on. Totally hopeless when we need everybody to be the best they can be. No need to tolerate educational efficiency in the Digital Age though, since we now have all the tools we need to educate ourselves and they’re all very user friendly. Even a child could use them.

  29. Justin says:

    That’s horrible, I guess the state wants to divert funding to schools who need it more. But that’s not smart to take away funding from a school that’s doing well, because then it will probably falter.

  30. Don says:

    Justin- you equate $ to performance. With your thinking would that extra $ at the deficient schools mean they will do better next year? I’d be willing to be even with the cut funding that Jonathan’s school will still outperform the ailing other schools.

    The idea that $ helps performance is foolish and is proven time after time after time to be wrong.

    The budget goes for many things, not just for helping kids get better at learning.

  31. As a retired teacher and mother of 4 adults, I have seen the public school system from many angles, and many things about it are ugly. I could jump back and forth agreeing with almost every comment, but I’ll try to harness this into a few words.

    For all its posturing, there is nothing equal and fair about the public school system, from the top down. Too many teachers are incompetent or complacent and too many parents are not supportive. Some parents at all income levels can barely ensure that their kids even show up at school. Blame flies back and forth across the school threshold and kids get caught in the melee.

    Every big plan (such as No Child Left Behind)is propelled by political ambition designed to give the impression that the educational system is making progress. NOT.

    I have a friend who retired two years earlier than she had planned (after a 30-year teaching career) because she was so disgusted, weary and enraged by the failings of the NCLB program.

    Thankfully I have known many teachers who have done an outstanding job of inspiring, instructing and empowering their students without benefit of all the administrative support they deserved and the district and state budgets that would have provided basic supplies.

    Even though it’s deplorable that your daughter’s school cut the budget, I am confident that you and the other supportive parents will fill in the gaps and supplement the educational activities.

    On the other hand, I worry that the new money added to the budgets of lower-performing schools will not have the effect we think. Throwing money at schools with so many other broken pieces will make little positive change. It’s like tossing a teaspoon of water into the ocean.

    As for your original question, yes I have been punished for succeeding.

    When I began my teaching career in an inner city junior high, I quickly put all my energy and passion into creating a warm learning environment and stimulating my students. As administrators and counselors began to learn about my strengths, they began to transfer more and more problem students from other classes into my classes. When I protested, they pointed out that the former teacher was weak and couldn’t handle the students, but they knew I could.

    I had no problem with working with a variety of students, but why should I have to manage 40 students when the weaker teacher (who was paid the same of course) had only 20 students. Besides, I spent the first few weeks shaping my classes into a family, only to have to regroup with each new troubled enrollee.

    In spite of this, I enjoyed many happy years teaching my junior high classes. Forty years later during the last semester of my teaching career at local college, I received an email from a young teacher in Maryland. She was looking for help in offering critical thinking courses in her program. By the way, she wondered if I was the same Flora Morris who taught English at her junior high so many years ago.

    I had come full circle. I was ending my teaching career by renewing contact with one of the many successful students who went through my classes. She also shared that she and some of the other students from her class have informal reunions where they have a good time laughing at some of the things I said to them. She thanked me for demanding their best.

    Now how can you buy that with a budget?

  32. Will says:

    Bush’s Education strategy, No Child Left Behind. If anyone does well they need to be reigned in. Otherwise money needs to be spent raising the others up.

    Others have mentioned money does not equate directly to performance. That’s true. It’s also true that the only thing politicians seem to understand is money.

  33. :) says:

    @Jared, Jonathan, & Joshua:
    Public schools make no one healthy.