Op-Ed: State DOE’s Rankings of ‘Best’ and ‘Worst’ Teachers Serve Neither

Lisa Wolff | August 4, 2015 | Opinion
Private companies are moving away from so-called forced rankings; NJ’s public school system should do the same

Lisa Wolff
Two weeks ago NJ Spotlight reported that the New Jersey Department of Education released its brand-new teacher evaluation results.

In seemingly unrelated news, last week Accenture announced a revamped evaluation system for its 330,000 worldwide employees.

As Accenture abandoned the tired practice of annual evaluations that included “forced rankings,” employees and analysts cheered. Forced rankings were an industry-standard technique that General Electric made popular in its 1980s heyday.

Accenture’s move was hardly unique. Scores of major organizations like Microsoft, Gap, Deloitte, and CapitalOne implemented then eventually dumped forced rankings. Even GE deserted its use.

Indeed, research reported in 2013 indicates that the percentage of companies using a forced-ranking system declined from 42 percent to 14 percent. The drop was steepest among the highest performing companies.

Like others prior, Accenture’s CEO, Pierre Nanterme, discovered that annual rankings didn’t achieve the intended purpose — namely, to improve employee and company performance.

With over a quarter century of history and experience, companies old and new reject and discard the approach proven unsuccessful. Thus, it seems an odd choice of timing for the New Jersey DOE to begin embracing the same ineffectual exercise.

Our state is essentially jumping on a bandwagon that has already jumped the shark.

To be fair, much of the state DOE’s evaluation system, known as AchieveNJ, is quite useful. Collaborative goal setting, more frequent observations, and timely feedback are certainly helpful. Unfortunately, those beneficial components receive far less exposure than related annual public forced rankings.

Further, as individual districts implement evaluations with varying needs, methodologies, and fidelity, annual ranking comparisons across districts become worthless.

Districts applying more rigorous standards that provide teachers with meaningful feedback designed to improve teacher practice may be rewarded in the long run with positive student achievement.

Conversely, districts that simply report that 100 percent of their teachers are highly effective with no room for improvement receive the short-term kudos of public-ranking acclaim. Worse yet, they risk shortchanging student and teacher future growth potential by withholding valuable keys to professional development.

Accenture reported those that do best in a ranking environment are “the most self-promoting,” but not necessarily the best going forward.

A friend inquired about New Jersey DOE results, and the subsequent ranking published by various news outlets. After learning that each teacher has personalized goals that figure into their evaluation, my friend responded, “It sounds like we are comparing apples to oranges. How do I use this information? How does it help me?”

My answer was, “It doesn’t … A teacher’s evaluation is not meant for you.” It is meant for the teacher.

Employee performance, at both companies and school districts, can improve by providing frequent feedback and direction, while allowing the freedom to innovate to gain optimal results. Forced rankings are counterproductive for promoting a culture of high morale and teamwork.

Rather than sanctioning school district Hunger Games, the New Jersey DOE should put systems in place that encourage collaboration. For example, seasoned teachers can mentor new teachers in classroom management; tech-savvy teachers can share techniques that motivate students to explore and achieve.

Encourage superintendents to reveal best practices with colleagues in order to raise performance throughout the entire state.

It’s a step in the right direction that New Jersey actively seeks change. However, when borrowing techniques from the private sector, let’s choose the methods achieving improved and more desirable results.