Microsoft’s lesson on what not to do with teachers

Bill Gates (By Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Bill Gates                                         (By Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been spending billions of dollars on education reform for years, first with a small-school initiative that he declared had failed after spending $2 billion, and in more recent years with expensive experiments on how to evaluate teachers with the purpose of improving teacher quality. In this 2011 op-ed, Bill and Melinda Gates wrote that Microsoft had some good lessons for schools about how to improve employee quality:

At Microsoft, we believed in giving our employees the best chance to succeed, and then we insisted on success. We measured excellence, rewarded those who achieved it and were candid with those who did not. Teachers don’t work in anything like this kind of environment, and they want a new bargain.

 

Well, it’s hard to imagine teachers wanting to work in the Microsoft environment.

Gates’ school reform philosophy is influenced by a Microsoft management practice that, according to this story on Slate.com by has been cited by employees as “poisonous” to the company’s culture. The practice is called “stack racking” (and, it should be noted, wasn’t started at Microsoft). How does it work? Oremus quotes from this 2012 Vanity Fair magazine article by Kurt Eichenwald about Microsoft. See if this description sounds familiar in the context of school reform:

At the center of the cultural problems was a management system called “stack ranking.” Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees. The system—also referred to as “the performance model,” “the bell curve,” or just “the employee review”—has, with certain variations over the years, worked like this: every unit was forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then good performers, then average, then below average, then poor. …

 

For that reason, executives said, a lot of Microsoft superstars did everything they could to avoid working alongside other top-notch developers, out of fear that they would be hurt in the rankings. And the reviews had real-world consequences: those at the top received bonuses and promotions; those at the bottom usually received no cash or were shown the door. …

 

“The behavior this engenders, people do everything they can to stay out of the bottom bucket,” one Microsoft engineer said. “People responsible for features will openly sabotage other people’s efforts. One of the most valuable things I learned was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me on the rankings.” Worse, because the reviews came every six months, employees and their supervisors—who were also ranked—focused on their short-term performance, rather than on longer efforts to innovate. …

 

Hence corporate-style school reform. Gates wants teachers rated and ranked too — who is highly effective, or merely effective, or minimally effective or complete disasters–  in part on student standardized test scores, a method that testing experts say is ill-advised because it is unfair. (The formulas used to establish how much a teacher had to do with a student’s test score do not produce reliable answers for the purposes of high-stakes decisions, such as salary and employment status.)

As P.L. Thomas notes in this post on his blog, Gates wrote in this 2011 Washington Post op-ed:

What should policymakers do? One approach is to get more students in front of top teachers by identifying the top 25 percent of teachers and asking them to take on four or five more students. Part of the savings could then be used to give the top teachers a raise. (In a 2008 survey funded by the Gates Foundation, 83 percent of teachers said they would be happy to teach more students for more pay.) The rest of the savings could go toward improving teacher support and evaluation systems, to help more teachers become great.

 

What teachers consistently say they want is an environment where they can work in collaboration with their colleagues, not in competition for merit pay or for better students who will score higher on tests than struggling students. The school reform movement in which Gates has been such a big part has actually led to a huge drop in teacher satisfaction in their work, according to this poll, which shows that morale has dropped to its lowest point in 25 years.

Thomas writes on his blog:

If Eichenwald’s characterization of the ranking as corrosive is accurate, leading as it did to workers “competing with each other,” then we can anticipate a truly disturbing reality to occur when teachers are held accountable for their students’ grade as significant percentages of their evaluations and compensation: Teachers will begin to use their students as weapons of mass instruction to defeat the students of the competing teachers, either in their own school or within the district.

 

Gates was not wrong in saying that teacher evaluation systems needed to be improved, or that there are bad teachers who need to removed from the classroom. But here’s the thing: You aren’t going to do any of that with a “stack ranking” mentality. You will only make things worse than they already are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · August 26, 2013