“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rating Teachers For Compensation Isn't Hard At All

The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal featured an interview with American Federation of Teachers union head Randi Weingarten. I'll address the interview and Weingarten's incredibly inflexible, almost martinet-like strict union-line responses in another post.

For today, I just want to point out the fallacy of Weingarten, and most teachers' complaints about attempts to rate them for compensation and dismissal.

On issues of merit-based pay and actions toward teachers, Weingarten replied,

"It's not the perfect mechanism, but it's the best mechanism we have. You have cronyism and corruption and discrimination issues. We're saying let's do things the right way. We don't want to see people get laid off based on who they know instead of what they know. We don't want to see people get laid off based on how much they cost."

The charges and fears of "cronyism and corruption and discrimination" are familiar to me. I had dinner this weekend with a friend who is a public school teacher. We've discussed these topics before, and Sunday evening, she reiterated her fears of non-seniority-based layoffs, i.e., favoritism.

Here's the problem. Those fears are what everyone else in white-collar, non-union jobs fears, too. My friend is what I would characterize as a white-collar union worker. Much like the longshoremen about whom I wrote some years ago. These union members, when, like my friend, cleverly and calculatingly remain in the same school, in the same district, for most of their career, become lifetime employees making the top salaries allowable in their district.

But that's a hot-house environment which is comparatively rare in America. I had sent the Weingarten interview piece to my friend by email, but she hadn't yet read it, so I restated Weingarten's 'fears' of non-seniority teacher layoffs.

Then I recounted for my friend the many cases of nepotism, favoritism, discrimination, sexism, and other assorted 'unfair' bases on which I'd seen colleagues promoted, retained or dismissed throughout my corporate career spanning AT&T, EF Hutton, Chase Manhattan Bank, Andersen Consulting and Oliver, Wyman & Co.

Because it was so long ago, so large, and, at the time, still growing, AT&T was probably where I saw the most egregious case of non-merit-based employment actions.

Stories were legion in the 1970s about the cliquishness which cemented employment prospects for many senior executives. Roger Moody, one-time AVP of Marketing Operations, was the brother-in-law of a prominent, more senior executive. If memory serves, that more senior exec was.....Business Marketing VP Archie McGill.

I worked in group whose director resembled Major Major of Catch-22. He, too, was the brother-in-law of a more senior, well-connected executive in Business Marketing. Tom was never accused of accomplishing anything. At all. In those days, many senior managers in the organization had risen simply because AT&T hired middle-level managers from companies, the operations of which it wanted to learn more about, to better market to them. Most of those hires simply wrote descriptions of customer needs which telephone products could serve, and were promoted for that. Often several times.

Thus, my Director, Tom, hadn't really done anything. But his relative protected his very cushy job as a Director in Business Marketing Development, the analytic group that managed business cases, which, in the early 1980s, paid in the range of $80K plus bonus. I had the distinctly uncomfortable opportunity of presenting to The Boot on one occasion. He had little grasp of what we presented, asked one or two largely inane, pointless questions, to show he could, then politely backed out of any further contact with the project. Unless we were presenting to his boss, whereby he'd show up, in order to share the valuable face time.

Perhaps the best example of cronyism at the old AT&T was what I called conspicuous investment, a term inspired by Thorstein Veblen's conspicuous consumption. Back in the late 1970s, Archie McGill created a sort of cult of admirers and suckups in Business Marketing. The group, created to help the firm prepare for a more competitive, less heavily-regulated future, had mushroomed rapidly througout the early- to mid-1970s.

McGill loved to ski, and had a condo at Vermont's Smuggler's Notch, which was a resort that had been owned by Tom Watson of IBM, McGill's former employer. In short order, any senior manager who knew what was good for him had a condo at Smuggler's, too. It became a major source of water cooler conversation among us junior managers. Many important informal meetings with McGill- much valuable face time- occurred on winter weekends at the Vermont vacation spot. I know of one mid-level manager who, thanks to his marriage to a woman from a wealthy family, was able to afford a condo, despite his lower rank. This afforded him opportunities for earlier-than-normal advancement, which he made sure paid off.

So entrenched was this investment clique that, years later, the AVP of Business Marketing, Bill Stritzler, an executive with no particular or distinguishing accomplishment at AT&T, escaped the collapsing world of near-divestiture AT&T by becoming the managing director at....Smuggler's Notch!

I'd seen women promoted for their physical attractiveness by older, married, licentious men to whom they had formerly skip-reported. The women didn't complain. They loved the promotion and the attention.

Like it or not, AT&T, then under an EEOC consent decree, promoted lots of unqualified minorities in order to stave off further government anti-discrimination lawsuits.

When I was promoted to District Manager, the youngest ever in AT&T, so I was told, I had to wait several months. The reason, I was bluntly informed, was that no white male in my AVP's group could be promoted until or without a corresponding female being promoted to the same level. So much for rewarding merit.

My point is, Weingarten, my teacher friend, and the bulk of teaching union members, want special relief from what the majority of their friends and neighbors must contend with for most of their careers, i.e., unfair cronyism.

As I explained this to my friend, she was speechless. As much as I like her, I have to be honest and say that she simply has no clue what the real private sector world of working and trying to fashion a career is like.

So, back to rating teachers. Weingarten is dead-set against it, of course. My friend is wary when I broach the subject.

But, during dinner, I brought the subject up, explaining how I learned about rating for promotion in my first job at AT&T in the late 1970s. The AT&T method essentially consisted of groups of managers of various levels, descending from Directors, to Division Mangers, to District Managers, rating their own direct reports, and those reports' personnel, so that groups of managers of each level would meet and rate the people under them. Each manager came armed with one or two of their people for whom they'd fight to have rated among the top few which the group of managers would all agree were promotable and had earned the highest raises. Each manager also knew which few people they'd refuse to defend, who could safely be rated at the bottom of the list of managers of that level.

But the key point was this. All of this rating only sought to identify, at each level, the small number of top-performing managers who would be eligible to interview for jobs at the next managerial level, and would be paid the best raises. The worst employees were also identified. But the bulk of the managers at each level were left in a broad middle group of largely-undifferentiated treatment.

This, I contend, is all that is required for teacher evaluations, too. Nobody's asking for some 30 teachers in a primary school to be rated 1-30. They just feel that the best few should be identifiable, as should the worst few. The rest can stay at the school, to be treated more or less equally.

My teacher friend didn't disagree with this, and found it reasonable. But it made her vaguely uncomfortable. Anything which truly moved in the direction of merit rating smacked of a potential for cronyism.

Again, welcome to the real world. When senior managers let everyone know they have a favorite subordinate, regardless of competence or qualifications, it's a foolish other subordinate who publicly raises an outcry over that favoritism. One typically either remains silent, or seeks another career path if such cronyism is too dysfunctional or pervasive.

Organizations of workers are communities. They are never perfectly administered or managed. No matter how many rules are promulgated, favoritism, cronyism, and discrimination creeps in to some extent. That's just reality.

Union chiefs and their members who expect taxpayers to foot the bill for the worst teachers being protected by all the other teachers and union members are living in a dream world. Nobody expects perfect information on the rating of every teacher in a school or district.

They simply want to know which are the best, and which are the worst.

Is that really so, too much for taxpayers to expect?

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