Sunday, June 17, 2007

Perverse incentives in education, youth baseball and health care

I help coach my older son's baseball team. He's been able to do pretty well in this relatively laid back mainstream league; he's not a star but he is a competent performer. It's been a great experience, but now we've moved up a level.

In this level there's real competition, including a "championship series". So what's the best way to coach a team to contention? Teams are supposed to be relatively balanced, though experienced coaches can game the system. Assume, however, that players really are randomly assigned. Every player has to go up to bat, and every player must play in the field roughly the same number of times a game (though positions are not rotated - the best players go to pitching, catching, 1st base, etc).

There are two approaches, the hard way and the easy way.

The hard way is to focus on each child's strengths and weaknesses and make them the best ball player they can be. Teach them to play as a team and have fun. Teach the fundamentals and develop strategies to work around fixed weaknesses, such as the child who can't field or throw.

The easy way, of course, is to eliminate the weaker players. There are numerous ways to do this, and most of them don't require any conscious effort. The easiest by far is to simply pay less attention to the weaker players, and not to make any extra efforts to help them work past frustrating circumstances. Focus resources instead on keeping the stronger players happy...

In no time at all, the weaker players will be gone, and the stronger will survive. Since every player bats, this can have a dramatic impact on scoring. Eliminating 1-2 players can make a team much stronger.

This is, of course, the method that Texas school districts used to meet their educational mandates when George Bush was governor. They eliminated the weakest students and raised their academic averages.

This behavior is not limited to youth baseball coaches or school teachers. Physicians will soon become expert at it. Medicare is shifting physician reimbursement to be based on "performance". There are several ways to "perform". The hard way is to improve the quality of care. The easy way is to encourage non-performers to move to someone else's practice. There will usually be some naive idealist who can be encouraged to collect all the non-performing patients.

Oh well, in about ten years we'll figure out what we've done wrong and change direction. Ten years after that we'll forget everything and start over again ...

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