Bill Gates has adopted education as a billionaire’s hobby for many years—once supporting small schools projects, but more recently focusing on teacher quality.
Little attention, however, has been paid to Gates’s struggles in business (Microsoft) or his complete lack of expertise, experience, or success as an educational entrepreneur.
Until now, in this expose by Vanity Fair addressing the key practices at the foundation of Microsoft’s failures (“Today, a single Apple product—the iPhone—generates more revenue than all of Microsoft’s wares combined”).
Gates has argued for a need to identify the best (and worst) teachers in order to control who teachers teach and how:
“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.”
In effect, Gates’s plan to address teacher quality is shared among almost all education reformers, including the USDOE and Secretary Arne Duncan, and focuses on labeling,ranking, and sorting teachers—a practice eerily similar to the “Cannibalistic Culture” identified as central to the failures at Microsoft:
“Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as ‘stack ranking’—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. ‘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,’ Eichenwald writes. ‘If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,’ says a former software developer. ‘It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.'”
“Competing with Each Other”: Students as Weapons of Mass Instruction
It all starts with a lie. A very compelling lie that has the weight of common sense reinforced by the proclamations of people with wealth, Bill Gates, and power, Secretary Duncan: Teachers are the single most important element in the learning of a child.
The problem is, of course, this is factually untrue. Nonetheless, the follow up lie (when you base a conclusion on a false permise, that conclusion is also false) is also compelling: Teacher quality must be improved!
The balance of evidence shows that measurable student outcomes (itself a serious flaw in how we draw conclusions about both student learning and teacher quality) is overwhelmingly linked with out-of-school factors—anywhere from about 2/3 to well over 80% of that data correlated with out-of-school factors.
Even arguing that teachers are the single most important in-school factor in measurable student outcomes is problematic since the research on that claim is mixed at best (some evidence suggests that school leadership and culture are as important, if not more so, than teacher quality).
Gates and the USDOE, then, are making a foundational problem of seeking solutions to problems that haven’t been identified. In other words, no one has shown definitively that teacher quality is the primary or even one of the primary causes of low student outcomes.
Now, once we move beyond that problem, approaches to teacher evaluation and pay may need to be revised, but ample evidence shows that the proposals being offered by Gates and Duncan, as well as all across the U.S., are also without solid evidence to support them (disproportionate teacher assignment has been identified, but that reality is somehow often ignored since the privileged children are winning in that inequity [see Peske & Haycock, 2006]).
Incentive-based evaluation and compensation have a long record of being ineffective, counter-production, and not cost effective (see Hout & Elliot, 2011, and Kohn, 1993/1999). Yet, as with the compelling message about teacher quality and student outcomes, competition and incentives are almost universally embraced in U.S. culture without regard for the evidence (see Worthen, et al., 2009, regarding competition).
That leads to the revelations about the previously unexplored problems at Microsoft exposed by Eichenwald—the Cannibalistic Culture of stack ranking by which all workers are evaluated on an imposed scale of ranking in order to identify the elite workers.
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.
This is a debilitating and ethically corrupt outcome that cannot be avoided if we continue to seek incentive-based, VAM approaches to teacher quality.
Education and teacher quality absolutely need to be reformed, but increasing the Cannibalistic Culture for teachers and students is not the path we need as a free people seeking universal public education as a central institution supporting democracy.
Education is a collaborative venture; a culture of competition is poison in the teaching/learning dynamic. Labeling, sorting, and ranking teachers and students is inexcusable in any form as long as we are genuinely committed to fostering a culture of collaboration necessary for learning.
The Cannibalistic Culture has created the winners who call for expanding that game. The Cannibalistic Culture benefits only the winners as it forces the status of loser upon most people regardless—again consider the stack ranking at Microsoft.
Teacher evaluation and education need to be reformed toward a culture of collaboration, a culture that encourages human interactions that are not about winning or losing and not about fighting for ever-shrinking pieces of the pie.
Public education and teacher quality reform currently being pursued is certain to drive good people from teaching and to ask less and less of both teachers and students. We have ample evidence from the disturbing Microsoft story being revealed to us, but we also have the stories of generations of teachers who know how education and teaching need to be supported and reformed.
Teachers want all students to succeed. Teachers want to be treated as professionals. Teachers want school conditions that support their work as educators.
Teachers do not want to use their students to outperform some other teachers’ students.
A Cannibalistic Culture will certainly create students as weapons of mass instruction that will destroy universal public education.