Non-Fiction – Incentives and Behavior

Learning Target: How incentives affect human behavior.

Classwork Today – Answer (20 points): How is it possible that the staff of Garfield HS would trade the lowering of performance for getting rid of Jaime Escalante? Wouldn’t it seem risky to do such a thing? Explain in a short paragraph using what you saw in the movie “Stand and Deliver”, as well as the article.

Today we’ll watch the next section of “Stand and Deliver”.

From the Article.  Pay close attention:

“Word got out to sophomores. (There are no freshmen in Los Angeles City schools; it is a three-year program.) If they wanted in to Escalante’s AP class, they had to work like mad in the first two years of math. They started doing this. It was a badge of honor to get accepted into his calculus class.

He was a hard-nosed disciplinarian. He would not tolerate second-best from known bright students. He threw them out. But he did whatever he could to help not-so-bright students who worked hard to pass his class.

This is the way great teachers have taught from the beginning of time. This is the way students master the material. To get his reputation as a great teacher, he must first become a salesman. He must persuade students to work harder than their peers. He must keep them motivated to persevere. This is not easy in the early stages of a teacher’s career.

When the buzz gets going, and students perceive that they will gain respect from peers and adults for having persevered, the dynamics change. It is not so difficult to sell students on the benefits. But in the early phases of a career, it is no picnic. The teacher must persevere.

The movie shows the dynamics of the faculty. Escalante was not welcomed with open arms. He said later that the movie was 10% dramatic fiction and 90% accurate. I suspect that the movie’s chairwoman of the department was not so bad in real life as the movie portrays. I hope not. She expressed fear that the students would fail. They did not need another failure. Escalante countered that students will rise to a challenge. He proved his point.


His big institutional problem was envy. This is the desire to pull down a high achiever. It was a factor in the faculty.

Every institution suffers from envy. The question is this: How can the system be designed to restrict it? Here is the institutional problem. If someone is hired who is a spectacular performer, he exposes the other members as time-serving hacks. On the other hand, if a new employee is substandard, word may get out. The next layer up in the system may ask: “How did this person get through the screening process?” That is a huge risk. Officials in the next layer up may decide to interfere with the sieve-like lower level. Every institution wants two things: (1) more autonomy; (2) more money. A threat to its autonomy is a major threat.

What is the reaction? Unofficially, the screeners opt for mediocrity.”


Class Notes:

  • “The Economy” is the behavior of individuals.
  • People respond to incentives
  • Envy corrupted some of the staff at Garfield HS.

Escalante with one of his classes before he was pushed out of the school:

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