Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Employee Performance

Jim Manzi and Noah Millman have a couple of great posts up about teacher performance metrics.

FLG thinks far too much emphasis in the discussion around school reform is placed on objective, quantifiable metrics. Thankfully, Manzi and Millman are bringing some perspective.

Manzi writes:
I’ve seen a number of such analytically-driven evaluation efforts up close. They usually fail. By far the most common result that I have seen is that operational managers muscle through use of this tool in the first year of evaluations, and then give up on by year 2 in the face of open revolt by the evaluated employees.

And Millman writes:
A great deal of discussion nowadays in education revolves around the idea that what we need to “fix the schools” is great teachers. But if that’s what we need, we’ll never do it. What we need, instead, are mechanisms for getting marginally better performance, year after year, from a teaching pool that remains merely adequate.

One bit of low-hanging fruit for achieving that goal, meanwhile, is the ability to dismiss the bottom 5% of teachers in terms of performance. Not only are these teachers failing comprehensively in their own classrooms, but their mere presence has a corrosive effect on an entire organization – on the teachers, on the students, on the management of the school. But right now, firing these teachers is essentially impossible. For all the difficulty of doing a rigorous evaluation in order to improve teaching performance across the board, I suspect it is a whole lot easier to identify the worst teachers in the school. If that could be done, the pressure to be able to terminate them would be significant, and that could do a lot to improve school performance right there.

Let's be honest, in all jobs there is some unquantifiable aspect. Focusing solely on these metrics is going to skew job performance toward what can be measured at the expense of other things. The accusations of teaching to the test are but one small part. A customer service representative whose performance is based around how many calls they answer a day, an easy thing to measure, probably isn't necessarily going to provide good customer service.

What happens in real life, or what should happen in real life, is that we give the managers the power to determine these things. Most managers won't work on some specific 1-100 scale, but most managers can divide their employees into three groups -- good, average, and poor. Sure, it's not perfect, but it works well enough in most situations.

As Millman correct when he suggests, maybe if we just got rid of the bottom 5%, then we'd be better off. Principals know who these people are without objective, quantifiable metrics. Sure, maybe principals will play favorites. Okay, happens in the corporate world too. But giving principals the power to fire poor teachers would probably follow the 80-20 rule. 20% of the effort to get us 80% there.

FLG isn't arguing to throw out quantitative, objective measurement. It helps to compare schools across income, education, time, geography, etc. It gives you a measuring stick. It helps to illuminate things that work and don't work. But let's not get lost in the weeds either. Everybody knows who the worst teachers are without getting into debates about metrics.

What's meaningful to human beings, and education is supposed to be meaningful, is almost always not quantifiable. FLG thinks that's why so many employees revolt agains the quantifiable system. It's measuring seemingly irrelevant things. So, let's resign ourselves to a less than perfectly efficient system, but take care of the easy things, the things everybody knows, that will improve it.

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