Last week, the Partnership for Public Service released its annual Best Places to Work in the federal government rankings. The survey polled nearly 700,000 civil servants in 10 workplace categories including leadership, teamwork, and work/life balance. The U.S. Department of Education ranked 18th out of 22 mid-side agencies. ED fared similarly last year, ranking 29th out of 33 (when it was classified as a "large" agency).
The results have occasioned some sniggering. After all, Ed Week's invaluable Michele McNeil reminds us that, when ED fared similarly poorly in 2009 (ranking 27th out of 30 large agencies), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pledged that, if it didn't rise in the rankings, "You can hold me accountable." In fact, in a missive to his new staff once the 2009 numbers were released, Duncan wrote, "People don't feel they are being listened to, and I expect our leadership and our managers to take responsibility for changing that. We need to make sure management understands your concerns and works to address them."
A frustrated response to the results would be understandable. We all get tired of public officials asking to be held accountable and then failing to deliver. But the larger issue is that the ratings themselves are off-base. Call me an SOB, but I really don't care about the morale of all ED employees--I care about the morale of good, productive, hard-working employees. After all, one way to keep mediocre employees happy about their leadership and work/life balance is to turn a blind eye when they screw up, miss deadlines, or deliver subpar performance. In other words, a low score could signal weak leadership, or that agency managers are disrupting comfortable lethargy--and that employees are bitter about it. What I care about is whether terrific civil servants are energized, valued, and satisfied by their work; and whether other employees are feeling compelled to get their act together, or to mosey on down the road. Crude surveys like this say nothing on that score.
By the way, this is the same problem that rears its head every time someone issues another hand-wringing release drawn from teacher surveys. Self-proclaimed teacher advocates like to say, for instance, that satisfaction within the teaching profession is at its lowest since the Reagan years. A recent Scholastic/Gates Foundation survey reported that "that there are approximately 350,000 teachers who are dissatisfied with their careers." Asked to comment in response to the results, Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic's education arm said, "Teachers are under attack." The 2011 MetLife survey reported that teacher job satisfaction dropped 15 points between 2009 and 2011.
Again, this is missing the point. I don't care about aggregate satisfaction. I want to know the satisfaction of terrific, hard-working teachers who are making a difference for kids. For other teachers, I'm concerned that "satisfaction" can be code for comfortable complacency. Indeed, I want teachers who aren't making a difference for kids to feel uncomfortable and challenged. If that makes them feel unsatisfied, so be it. In fact, if they're not willing or able to raise their game, I hope they're sufficiently unsatisfied that they choose leave the profession.
Until we start to make some of these distinctions, these surveys of morale will continue to tell us little of value. In fact, there's a persistent risk that they'll ding responsible leaders who are uncompromising about the pursuit of excellence.