Why Should We Reform Education Using Microsoft's Failed Ranking Policies?

Bill Gates addresses education reform, February 2011

Few people have been as visible as Bill and Melinda Gates on the subject of education reform. Certainly, in our society, where having a large portfolio trumps any possible personal failings, Bill Gates is held up by the mainstream media as someone leading the charge for innovation in education reform.

But is he?

Gates has been advocating for the adoption of a ranking policy for teachers and schools that has been in use at Microsoft for years. Essentially, it assumes that in any team of ten, there would be two that would get great reviews, seven would get mediocre reviews and one would get a poor/terrible review. Are you sensing the inherent issue with these preconceived rankings? The employees at Microsoft can tell you:

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.”

That's right. The very policy being pushed to "fix" education is the exact same one that has damaged Microsoft's ability to innovate and lead.

And it's the same policy that Andrew Cuomo has adopted for New York schools. Diane Ravitch, who has been trying to stem this tide of using business principles to reform education, has some questions as well:

I am puzzled by what I read in the column cited here. I am also puzzled by the Gates Foundation’s persistent funding of groups that want to privatize public education. I am puzzled by their funding of “astroturf” groups of young teachers who insist that they don’t want any job protections, don’t want to be rewarded for their experience (of which they have little) or for any additional degrees, and certainly don’t want to be represented by a collective bargaining unit.

I am puzzled by their funding of groups that are promoting an anti-teacher, anti-public education agenda in state after state. And I am puzzled by the hundreds of millions they have poured into the quixotic search to guarantee that every single classroom has a teacher that knows how to raise test scores.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone at the Gates Foundation has any vision of what good education is, or whether they think that getting higher test scores is the same as getting a good education. I wonder if they ever think about their role in demoralizing and destabilizing the education profession.

I don't think there is anyone who will deny that we do need education reform. We are matriculating young people who are functionally illiterate and unable to think critically. And that is the generation charged with caring for us as we age. But rather than work in a way that demoralizes and demonizes teachers, we ought to be focusing on ways to raise and inspire every student.

For more, Educator PLThomas has a great article on DailyKos.

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