Stacked Ranking: Bad for Microsoft, Good for Teachers?

This item was filed under [ Blog, CFI Agent Reports, Creativity in the Classroom ]

stacked ranking“One of the most valuable things I learned,” a Microsoft engineer told Vanity Fair’s Kurt Eichenwald regarding his tenure with the company, “was to give the appearance of being courteous while withholding just enough information from colleagues to ensure they didn’t get ahead of me in the rankings.”  The unnamed employee was interviewed for Eichenwald’s groundbreaking 2012 expose on the internal problems that were causing Microsoft to decay from within.  Chief among the complaints was Microsoft’s practice of “stacked ranking”, i.e. grading employees on a bell curve.  Top-performing employees were given a bonus, while middle-range employees were encouraged to compete with each other for top status.  Low-ranking employees were susceptible to discipline or dismissal.  The engineer that Eichenwald talked to wasn’t alone in his distates for stacked ranking.  Employees throughout the company cited the practice as one of the major failings that has held Microsoft back, as competitors like Apple have surged forward.  Stacked ranking, employees said, encouraged undermining of fellow workers, and the practice of doing “just enough” to get by.  If the whole company isn’t doing well, employees in a stacked ranking system have no incentive to do better.  They just have to be a little bit better than everyone else.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft abandoned the practice of stacked ranking in November, following the example of companies like Adobe, Medtronics, and New York Life, all of which quietly abandoned the bell curve over the past year.  This is all well and good, until we look at how Microsoft’s stacked ranking system has infiltrated our schools.  The Gates Foundation, helmed by the erstwhile Microsoft founder, spearheaded efforts to implement stacked ranking as part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education initiative, to which the Gates Foundation has bestowed generous grants.  In a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bill Gates cited Microsoft’s success with stacked ranking as reason why teachers should be graded on a bell curve in efforts to improve grades and teacher performance.  Apparently, the view from the top didn’t give Gates the foresight to see how his company’s ratings practices were causing his company to rot from within.

It’s relatively easy for Microsoft to abandon the practice.  Author and educator David Morris, writing for On the Commons e-zine, questions whether or not the failures of stacked ranking will affect schools long into the future.  “Big business can turn on a dime when the CEO orders it to do so,” Morris laments. “But changing policies embraced and internalized by dozens of states and thousands of public school districts will take far, far longer.”  Race to the Top and its stacked-ranking teacher grading system has been implemented in over 36 states, with more to come as the government requires states to adopt RTTT practices in order to be eligible for federally funded grants.

Morris says that teachers have begun to feel the strain of working within a stacked-ranking system.  He cites a 2012 MetLife survey that found a mere 39% of American teachers are satisfied with their jobs, as opposed to 62% in 2008.  Although no concrete evidence ties these findings with stacked ranking, it’s obvious that something isn’t right in our education system, and we may even be worse off than we were before the sweeping reforms introduced with Race to the Top.  If our leaders are going to take cues (and donations) from big business when managing education, as they’ve done with the Gates Foundation, perhaps it’s time for them to listen when the companies they’re getting money from, state that the system doesn’t work.