Stacking the Deck

Diane Ravitch creates multiple posts almost every day on her blog titled Diane Ravitch’s Blog. I am in awe of her. She recently admitted to her loyal readers–I am one–that she needed to cut back to blogging only five days a week–to leave off from posting on the weekends–as she has a book deadline looming. However, there she was this morning–a Saturday morning, mind you–posting again. Jeez Louise. Not just one post, but six today; and seven yesterday. She is phenomenally productive. Her observations are provocative and worthwhile.

Many of her posts are in response to situations, information, and news that comes to her and the public’s attention. Some of her posts refer to posts on other blogs related to public education and politics. Some of her posts are developed to highlight reader responses to her own earlier posts. Some are short and sweet and to the point. Others are longer and more detailed. Ravitch must need far less sleep than I do and must not be easily distracted. She must be a quick and facile reader. She is opinionated and knowledgeable.

If you are a blog reader, mark hers as a favorite, and check it regularly. You will not regret it.

One of today’s posts, What the Microsoft Culture Is Doing to Education, recounted the application of a corporate practice of employee evaluation to teacher evaluation. [As if things were not challenging enough in the world of public education; as if there has not already been enough corporate fiddling and finagling.] So, Ravitch has commented on a blog about a magazine article. And, now, I am posting about her post on a post. How insular can one get?

I see an immediate connection to Delaware’s current RTT-driven initiative of offering $10,000 retention incentives to go to “a subset of eligible teachers in select schools where the local superintendent has agreed to participation” (DEDOE words—not my own.) More on this later.

So, Vanity Fair—a magazine of surprising depth and breadth for such a long-time periodical of the patrician—includes an article about stack ranking, a practice of employee evaluation popularized by Jack Welsh of former GE fame. Microsoft apparently also used this method of appraisal and evaluation for the past decade, a practice that has, some think, contributed to the company’s stagnation and falling behind competitors like Apple.

Stack ranking sounds simple: everyone gets a rating; then everyone is ranked from top to bottom. The great and good are rewarded; the average to mediocre get to stay; and the bottom of the stack get the pink slip. Seems reasonable. However, the practice is apparently stringently applied to all employee units or teams. No matter the entire team’s effectiveness or brilliance or successes, there has got to be someone at the top and someone at the bottom. And, the guy(s) at the bottom of every unit has gotta go.

And, that ain’t the only thing that goes. Cooperation, collegiality, and collaboration become things of the past. Team work, creativity, mission cohesiveness, and camaraderie are kicked to the curb. Competition and rivalry rule. Everyone is so absorbed in jockeying for a position—literally—that he/she soon loses sight of the satisfaction that comes from operating as part of a well-oiled machine. Sounds chilling to me.

Read the VF article—it’s a quick one-pager. Then read the Paul Thomas blog Gates’s Cannibalistic Culture: Coming to a School Near You! on The Daily Kos. Pay attention to his analysis and detail. I do believe that he is right on target here. Read the comments! (I always read the comments—often as informative as the post.)

Then read the Ravitch post. She links to a 2007 description and analysis of stack ranking (also known as forced ranking) by Jennifer Alsever on CBS Money Watch. A very interesting read.  Alsever suggests that workers should be concerned. “The long-run impact [of forced ranking] should ideally be increased productivity, profitability, and shareholder value. But sometimes a company culture can shift due to forced ranking, creating a more competitive atmosphere and decreasing morale.”

Yep. That would concern me. Additionally, the term stack ranking does not connote the same power as does the term forced ranking. Leads me to think about having the odds stacked against one. No matter how good you are; no matter how many goals you attain; no matter how many deadlines you meet; no matter how many widgets you sell—there may be someone who is ranked higher, thereby putting you at risk.  Forcing everyone—including all members of a very successful team or unit—to line up according to enforced rank order so that the lesser of the successful—an oxymoron if I ever saw one—can be culled from the ranks. Quantitative data can be so authoritative! No fuss–no muss. Not much consideration or thoughtful management.

This is where I see the connection between the practice of stack or forced ranking and the money deals for attraction and retention of those coveted “highly effective” teachers. Now, don’t get me wrong. I value quality teaching and quality teachers. However, I will go to my grave believing that good and great teaching is truly represented by what one can observe in the classroom–not by trying to measure effective teaching through the results of student testing.

The desire to assess and rank teachers by some interpolation between classroom observation and student test results worries me. Throwing big money into the mix–$10,000 is a lot of money to teachers—especially to younger teachers who earn less and may have student debt and/or young families—could produce the same kinds of unintended consequences mentioned above. If collaboration is the way to go, then how will R & A incentives help foster working together?

Alsever points out: “Critics also claim the system creates a competitive environment that can result in cutthroat, unethical behavior; limit risk-taking, creativity, and teamwork; and discourage workers from asking for help or extra training out of fear that they’ll be identified as low performers.”

An additional fear is that teachers and administrators may feel forced to stack the deck. There have already been plenty of stories from across the country of cheating and corruption related to standardized testing and meeting AYP. Now, if test scores can mean losing one’s job for some or getting an instant financial boost for others, will this trigger more instances of altering test answers or falsifying data?

Something to think about,…

This entry was posted in "Reform Experts", Accountability, Blogs and Blogging, Education Reform, Merit Pay, Quality Teachers/Quality Teaching, Teacher Evaluation. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Stacking the Deck

  1. A Delaware Teacher says:

    You have gotten me hooked on Diane’s blog. I said reading her posts would frustrate me, and they do. Her posts leave me feeling uneasy. However, I know that she is fighting for me. Reading her blog scares me, but mainly because I am not in school because it is summer. I miss being in the classroom where I get to interact with what matters- students.

  2. John Young says:

    I hear we have problems brewing on that front: test cheating, right here in little ‘ol DE.

    How very unsurprising.

  3. Jack Polidori says:

    Exactly what does collaboratin mean? Webster’s Dictionary provides two definitioens which is it?

  4. Jack Polidori says:

    Collaboration. Sorry about that. 🙂

  5. Jack Polidori says:

    Definitions. Cranky fingers on the iPad.

  6. fsjenner says:

    Hey, Buddy. Get your fingers settled down!

    My Webster’s actually has three definitions of collaborate.

    I understand the concern over “collaboration.” In this case, I mean teachers feeling free to interact with each other to share ideas, critique suggestions, work together on a common initiative, to function as a team. (1) “To work jointly with others or together esp. in an intellectual endeavor.” Not the kind of collaboration where the neighbors trim your hair after you have demonstrated allegiance to an invading or interfering power. Not the Vichy government; not going along to gain personal advantage.

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