What does Steve Ballmer have to do with testing and teachers?

I actually meant to write about this much earlier, when Steve Ballmer actually quit, but alas, such is life.

There was a lot of discussion about why Ballmer and Microsoft failed to keep up to the trends after he stepped down, and a number of articles I read pointed the finger at an evaluation practice called “stack ranking.”

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.

Slate also points the finger at stack ranking for Microsoft’s demise:

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer oversaw a system called “stack ranking,” in which employees on the same team competed directly with one another for money and promotions. Critics say this rewarded brown-nosing and sabotage.

So what does this have to do with education? Stack ranking, as it works in New York State, is basically the same thing. Teachers are ranked on a percentile basis in comparison with their peers; the value-added model the system is based on is a relative, not an absolute, measure. This is how you end up with great teachers like Carolyn Abbott ranked as “the worst eighth-grade math teacher in New York City“,[1. It’s worth noting there’s another thing going on here as well: the value-added model on which the teacher evaluation systems are based function poorly for teachers teaching students on each end of the spectrum. High-achieving students can’t really do much better on tests, and ELLs and students with disabilities typically perform poorly on tests.] despite teaching a group of high-achieving students.

Making it even worse, the edreformers who support the method of evaluation also tend to tie this to merit pay[2. Which has a pretty shit-tastic history. I’ll have to write about that too sometime.] as well as firing decisions. Put it all together, and you’ve pretty much got “stack ranking for teachers.” And you’ll turn the public school system into Microsoft.[3. Amusingly enough, these are also the people who are complaining that schools aren’t innovative/stuck in the 1950s, yet they continue to support strategies that do little/nothing to move them forward.]

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