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Competition Won't Work in Schools

Reformers assert that competition is indispensable if public schools are to improve. They like to cite examples from the private sector, where companies that had once been written off did an about face when competition forced them to implement new performance criteria. But reformers suffer from selective amnesia, as a series of articles about Microsoft demonstrate. Since this column is devoted exclusively to education, however, I'll focus only on stack rankings of employees there ("Microsoft's Lost Decade," Vanity Fair, Aug.).

For readers unfamiliar with the term, stack ranking is "a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor." That means in a group of, say, 10, "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." In other words, stack ranking by its very nature unavoidably creates artificial distinctions. I realize that in any given population pool there will be variations in ability and, therefore, most likely in performance. But these differences many times are so nuanced that for all practical purposes nothing is served by attempting to rank individuals.

How does stack ranking apply to schools? In today's era of accountability, teachers are increasingly evaluated on their students' standardized test scores. Faced with this reality, they become reluctant to share strategies that have proved effective in boosting such scores. Who can blame them? This trend is already being felt in New York City, where new tenure evaluations are "dividing teachers and lowering morale" ("Many New York City Teachers Denied Tenure in Policy Shift," The New York Times, Aug. 18).

The rebuttal is that low performers "destroy the performance environment by encouraging average performers to slack off" ("The Case for Stack Ranking of Employees," Forbes, Jul. 10). But this cynical view does not apply to most teachers. Those who choose to teach do not do so for money, fame or power. They make their decision based on their desire to help young people grow into their full potential.

Even defenders of stack ranking, however, admit that too much pressure carries the risk of inducing the best to leave. That's not surprising because an atmosphere of cutthroat competition is not conducive to collegiality, which top teachers say is essential. I also wonder how much the same teachers are turned off by the potential for favoritism. Whenever high stakes are involved, it is unavoidable. In short, what sometimes works in some businesses will not work in education because of the different attitudes and values of teachers.

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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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