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Why Judge CEOs and Teachers Differently?

Reformers assert that teachers enjoy the equivalent of diplomatic immunity for their performance, as compared with chief executive officers in business who either deliver results or are shown the door. It's a claim that has great intuitive appeal in today's protracted recession. But the truth is far more nuanced.

Consider the case of Eastman Kodak. The Wall Street Journal warns in an editorial that the company serves as "a tale of how easily a corporate giant can be felled by a single disruptive technology" ("The Kodak Lesson," Review & Outlook, Jan. 5). The editorial goes on to explain why "nothing is forever in a free-market economy." Yet there is not one word about the role that top executives played in the impending bankruptcy.

The same editorial page editors, however, are quick to publish essays accusing teachers of being shielded from accountability when schools underperform on standardized tests, which the WSJ believes constitute the bottom line. Any attempt to try to explain why this conclusion is unfair is labeled as making excuses. For example, in an essay published on May 10, 2011, Joel Klein wrote that "union power is why it's virtually impossible to fire a teacher for non-performance. In New York City, which has some 55,000 tenured teachers, we were able to fire only half a dozen or so for incompetence in a given year, even though we devoted significant resources to this effort" ("Scenes From the New York Education Wars").

What about those in the executive suite? Can they be fired for their underperformance? They can, but when they are they don't walk away emptyhanded. On the contrary, their severance packages see to that. They're worth more than scores of teachers earn in their entire careers. Even when top executives engage in unethical behavior and are fired, efforts to reclaim pay and perks awarded to them, which are known as clawbacks, fail ("Tougher Wall Street Clawbacks Are Needed, NYC Comptroller Says," businessweek.com, Dec. 22, 2011).

Kodak is far from the only example. Yahoo has had four permanent CEOs in five years ("Yahoo Finds New CEO at PayPal," The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 5). Each one exited with a veritable gold mine. Their egos were probably bruised, but that's about all. For example, Carol Bartz, who saw Yahoo's stock price plummet during her tenure, left with a severance package worth $10.4 million ("Fired Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz could get $10.4 million severance," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 8, 2011). And Wall Street prima donnas who didn't receive their usual eye-popping bonuses despite their sub-par performance in 2011 are threatening to sue ("Bonus battles: Disgruntled bankers threaten to sue or walk," New York Post, Jan. 8).

I recognize that business and education are different. But reformers do not. They demand that teachers be judged the same way as executives. If they eventually prevail, then I say that teachers should be given the same golden parachutes. But don't count on that ever happening. Hypocrisy is too embedded in the reform movement.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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