Saturday, March 12, 2016

What Do You Pay Me To Do?

All job evaluation systems answer the same question for employers-- Are these employees doing what we pay them to do?

In some sectors, this is an easy enough process. If I'm paying you to sell a certain amount of product, I can run the numbers and see if you sold that much product. Anyone who has worked in some version of retail knows how this goes-- did you hit your numbers this week, this month, this year?

But the tricky thing about employee evaluation systems is that they force employers to answer a question-- what do we pay these people to do? In fact, employers answer that question whether they mean to or not, and employers have to be careful.

For instance, if you run a catalog call center, a phone bank that takes the orders that customers call in, you might decide to evaluate your employees on how many orders they take per shift. That might seem to make sense. But as some such companies have learned, there's a problem with this evaluation system. One of my many part-time jobs was at just such a call center. The folks who call in are generally older; they may speak slowly or unclearly, and in some cases you are the only human voice they have spoken to all day. But if your evaluations are based on calls-per-hour, then your call center employee is sitting there thinking, as some nice old person tries to chat pleasantly, "Lady, I am not paid to be nice to you. I am paid to take your money and get you off this phone as quickly as possible." The company that I worked for had long since figured out that this was a bad plan, that one of the things you had to pay your employees to do was, in fact, to treat the customer well. And they had to tweak their employee evaluation system to do that.

A good evaluation system is hard to develop for precisely this reason-- because when you create the system, you define the employee's job. You answer the question, "What exactly do we pay you to do, anyway?"

Which brings us to teacher evaluation systems.

You're a taxpayer. What do you think you're paying teachers to do? Maintain a safe environment? Help your child become more confident, more wise, better adjusted, happier? Help your child discover her strengths? Prepare your child to succeed as an adult? Give your child the tools for a successful career, whatever that child might choose? Maintain a personal bank of knowledge and competence that guarantees the teacher is an up-to-date knowledgeable professional? Develop your child into a well-rounded individual? Model how to develop and maintain healthy relationships? Plan, prepare, and evaluate lessons with a wise, professional focus? Support the child's growth? Nurture the child as a special individual? Push the child to learn a wide range of skills and acquire a full body of knowledge? Not waste your child's time? Develop a set of skills and growth that are unique to your child? Plus a whole long list of other things that would make this paragraph too damn long to list?

But the ed reform model reduces that list to just one item.

Get the child to score well on the Big Standardized Test.

Imagine if you were upset about something that happened with your child. She was bullied and nobody did anything about it. She wanted to do have a class to draw in, and nobody would let her. She wanted to go outside and play. The teacher had been cold and unkind to her. She was having trouble with her science experiment and nobody would help her.

You call the school. You schedule a meeting. You sit down with the principal and teacher, express your concern, and they look you in the eye and say, "Look. We appreciate your concern, but we aren't paid to do that. We're paid to make sure your child gets a good test score, and that's it. That's all you pay us to do."

Nobody would be okay with that. Nobody should be okay with that.

Yet, if we have a system that pays teachers for getting good student scores on the BS Tests, what we're saying is, "Never mind the rest of that stuff. We pay you to get good student test scores. That's what we pay you to do." Everything else is extra, unimportant, not really part of the job.

The biggest problem with linking teacher evaluation to student test results is not that it's inaccurate and invalid. The biggest problem is that these VAMmy test-driven systems redefine the job. They say to teachers, "Get in there and get test scores up. That's what we pay you to do. That's all we pay you to do."

The big sell for recruiting teachers was always, "Come touch the future. Come help mold and support young minds. Come help young people find themselves and grasp their future. Come create a love of learning as you hold up young people and help set them on a path to become more fully human, more fully themselves, ready to take their place as adults in the world." If we change that pitch to, "Come help children get better standardized test scores," can we really be surprised that fewer people feel drawn to teaching as a career?

An evaluation system must answer-- cannot help but answer-- the question, "What do you pay me to do?" Students, teachers, the entire education system-- all need a better answer than, "To get good test scores."


  1. Technology gives the bureaucrats the means to implement these evaluation systems. Jason Tanz at Wired magazine did some stories that made my hair stand up. I emailed him to ask him to think about the inhuman aspect of chronic monitoring and evaluation. He responded by telling me that he "got" what I was saying but he felt like he already understood those issues because his mom and sister are teachers. He proceeded to dream of a world of data rich analysis on students as they proceed through their daily work which would preclude the need for testing.

    My conclusion? Among other things, technology is a drug that many "smart" people cannot shake. They simply love it. Without it the testing and teacher evaluation frenzy wouldn't be possible.

    As the younger generation moves into positions of leadership, we will continue to see technology driving policy and procedure. Few people know/believe/recognize/even ponder the possibility that data do/does lie. Big liar. Big, big liar.

    1. But he is being judged by how his articles affect the circulation numbers ... is he really as unbiased as the thinks?

  2. You left out "Gather Data." We get paid to do that too now. :-(

  3. I have always thought that peer evaluation, like that done in post secondary institutions, is a good way to go. All tenure, promotion, and salary increase issues go first through a department committee of the faculty, than a college committee of the faculty, and a university committee of the faculty. Teachers know the most about what is going on in the building, and they should care the most when bad teaching happens.

    The most shocking thing I have ever seen posted on a blog was the statement that it is unprofessional to criticize another teacher, that a teacher should only report concerns to an administrator about another teacher if there was danger of immediate physical harm to students. If that is the prevailing attitude among teachers, the attempts to find other ways to evaluate teaching is perfectly understandable.

  4. On the other hand, the administrators I have had in my career have always failed miserably to define in any substantive way what my job is. This has led to much confusion and uncertainty. I have repeatedly sat with principals in meetings that arose over a dispute parents brought over the grades their children earned in my classes. I would point to the contradictory nature of the many expectations (e.g.: a rigorous AP class and a low "D and F ratio") placed on my performance. I would do my best to pin them down to what they wanted me to do, but in the end, they always wanted the final decision to be mine, so they had somebody to throw under the bus, if needed.

    Now that union representation has been neutered in my state and I'm also deep enough into this career to really need to survive until retirement, those meetings aren't just confusing, they're mildly terrifying. As an at-will employee, I fully realize that I must do exactly what the boss wants, so I will do it. But the boss still won't make the call, because that means he will have defined what my job is, and the buck now stops with him.

    I don't like data-driven job descriptions, either, but when the alternative is a vague, default, "make the boss's life stress-free" job description, I'll take the data.