Can Corporate Hands Guide Public Education?

I was barely awake this morning when I heard Joe Scarborough raving on TV about the teachers strike in Chicago. He argued that the teachers union was committing public relations suicide and alienating parents while Mayor Rahm Emmanuel cuts them to shreds.

This is possibly all true, but not entirely relevant to the issues at stake, foremost of which are the evaluation methods used to judge teacher performance, who doles out those evaluations, and what consequences those evaluations create. This is heavy stuff.

Teacher evaluation is increasingly significant because of the recent intrusion into such matters by corporate bigwigs like Bill Gates, Steve Brill, and Eva Moskowitz (all advocates of privatizing America's schools). It isn't surprising that dilettantes like these can become — by their own declaration — instant reformers of America's schools. In two areas of our public discourse, politics and education, everyone's an expert because: a) everyone has the right to vote with a government-issued photo ID stamped with an expiration date; and b) we all had to go to school.

A subject dear to the hearts of our current crop of reformers, teacher evaluation is hardly an exact science. When I was earning my Master of Arts in Teaching, the trendy approach to evaluation was a system called “behavioral objectives.” By now, I'm sure these “behavioral objectives” have been laughed out of fashion and are universally seen the way teachers regarded them 40 years ago — as crap.

Nowadays, reformers are promoting corporate human resources practices as the model for evaluation, with special emphasis on judging teachers by how their students score on high-stakes standardized tests in two areas: math and reading (which, in the current management-oriented, vocational interpretation of the American school, are the only two subjects worth a tinker's dam).

Using corporate HR as a guideline might be a feasible approach in measuring the largely non-cognitive effect of teachers on students — if there was some evidence that corporate HR, as a professional practice, knows its ass from its elbow. The record is not encouraging.

For example, I know a conscientious manager who supervised a number of employees in a proudly up-to-date, medium-sized LLC. More often than she had time to do so, she was tasked to evaluate each of her subordinates using a complex form. The form listed a dozen areas of performance, including goals established at the beginning of the evaluation period, goals met, and — wait a minute, you've all worked for companies. You've all seen this crap before.

The real challenge for my supervisor — let's call her Judge Judy — was to protect her people from the depredations of senior management. She was understaffed, but her bosses were always hungry to cut costs (as every worker knows, management's only conceivable method for cost-cutting is firing people).

The company's HR forms allowed Judge Judy three choices in each performance category: above average, average, and below average. The hitch was that if she deemed someone above average in even one category, that worker became eligible for a raise in pay — a notion that caused apoplexy among the big bosses who had already squirreled away every spare penny in quarterly earnings for themselves and their “shareholders.” Therefore, any employee deemed above average and eligible for a raise was more likely to be fired for costing too much.

By the same token, Judge Judy dared not mark anyone below average because that worker would face immediate termination — without replacement — for falling down on the job.

So, everyone Judge Judy ever evaluated went straight down the middle of the page as average, regardless of the actual quality of their work. Everyone was grateful to Judge Judy because a totally meaningless grade of average was the key to job security.

The variable here is that Judge Judy understands the game and cares about her staff. She could be replaced, at any moment, by someone who also understands the system, but sees it as a means to settle personal scores and screw people he or she doesn't like. All it takes to ruin someone's life are a couple of checkmarks in the below or above average columns.

Corporate HR evaluation systems like this are not only obviously subject to the whims of the big bosses, they're also vulnerable to personal spite by little bosses against excellent, dedicated, but perhaps outspoken, workers. Workers who have no labor union behind them to fight for justice in the workplace.

Which brings us back to Chicago…

16 comments on “Can Corporate Hands Guide Public Education?

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    September 12, 2012

    Awesome, awesome post. But to close the circle: using corporate practices to evaluate teachers is a bad idea. But is the current system any better? Using standardized tests means teachers teach to the test (which may be the lowest common denominator in some areas of the country.) If the teachers are good at this, they get tenure. Hooray–our children can aspire to mediocrity!

     I'm not sure there is an easy answer to this, particularly if we eliminate privatization as an alternative. Are charter schools the answer? In Mass., I think they use the same standards as public schools (as do parochial schools).

    Any feedback?

  2. Ariella
    September 12, 2012

    @Barbara there is a great deal of variation for standards, depending on which state you're in. For example, the test that high school teachers in New York teach to is the Regents exam. Other states don't have the same exam, though they may have soem of their own. However, budgets have a strong impact. Some Regents requirements — like the foreign language — have been eliminated, not because of an educational mandate but to save the state money.

  3. SP
    September 13, 2012

    Very true words said about HR folks. Most of the HR I have seen in my career are political, self centered and likes screwing people who are honest, hardworking and straight forward. These HRs know hardly anything about potential of human resources or buman beings. They easily make camps, go down to any low level to show a person how they can spoil their career if the person doesnt oblige them. I feel there must be a feedback taken from all employees for HRs. But the worst is when HR start abusing their powers and create a bad environment for the engineers to work. I witnessed a particular case where the HR used all her power to demotivate a Java developer just because he was  hardworking, quite straight in talking and was not ready to behave as HR assistant. HR's ego was hurt and she kept finding mistakes in the HR database that the developer has designed. But its very difficult for any employee to stand against these monster HRs as in an organization they seem to have the magic power of recruiting and firing.

    The corporate world is not as rosy as it looks from outside.Using Corporate HR policies on education system, in my personal opinion is not a great thing. Let the education scenario be away from corprate HR policies.

  4. Ariella
    September 14, 2012

    @SP sure there are politics and teams within corporations, as there are in just about all organizations. People like to feel that they are in control of their own fiefdom and will try to take down anyone who appears a threat to their authority and control. I've had that experience in schools as well as businesses. 

  5. Adeniji Kayode
    September 14, 2012

    Having an HR is still in the heart of every corprate organisations in Africa, this other side of the coin mentioned is not yet a problem or not noticed in  this part of the world.

  6. Adeniji Kayode
    September 14, 2012


    That is one of the effect of misplaced priority

  7. Taimoor Zubar
    September 16, 2012

    I think it all bogs down to the question of who has how much authority in the HR. If it's restricted to a single person that the human bias can easily kick in and the decision is not likely to be fair. If the authority is distributed amongst multiple people then the bias is not likely to settle in.

  8. Taimoor Zubar
    September 16, 2012

    “I'm not sure there is an easy answer to this, particularly if we eliminate privatization as an alternative.”

    @Barbara: I'm not sure if I'd agree that privatization is a bad option for schools. A private company has more incentive to uplift the brand image of the business and improve upon the quality. And quality improvement in a school comes directly from putting better teachers. So a private school is more likely to evaluate teachers better and have a high quality pool of teachers compared to a public one.

  9. SP
    September 17, 2012

    I feel education system must be away from corporate culture. In corporate world as you go up the ladder especially in senior management (talking about mostly services companies), its all politics. They hardly do any productive work. Its all going for lunches, personal parties and private give and take businesses. While coporates deal with employees, education system deals with kids. The sensitivities and approach are different and must be different. If any HR makes bad scene for employee, the person can still join another company and live his life. But if some of their cruel political influence come on education system, the kids will be affected. Let them be non manipulative and enjoy their freedom. I have closely seen the performance appraisal rating system in corporates, it all looks good on the paper and policies but implementation is fully biased or predetermined.

  10. garyk
    September 17, 2012

    I have some QUESTIONS the readers can answer!!!

    Where do you send your kids to school?

    Where does the Presdent of the US send his Kids to school?

    How do Private schools provide a better education?

    How do private schools provide a good eduation with out a UNION?

    How much TAX help do private schools get?

  11. David Benjamin
    September 17, 2012

    You pose hackneyed questions, but they deserve at least a desultory response. My three kids went to publc schools. Those of the President and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel attend private schools, partly for reasons of security, partly because the private schools in where both Obama and Emanuel live are better than the seriously stressed and overcrowded public schools available. Also, nowadays, because of educational “reform,” all public schools are allowed to do is prepare kids for government-mandated standardized tests in reading and math. In private schools, they still teach music, art, foreign languages, science. As for comparing public and private schools, apples and oranges. If private schools had to accept and cope with ALL applicants, regardless of their background and family conditions, they would face difficulties similar to those that public schools MUST, by law, deal with. Despite the fact that private schools get to pick their students and turn away the majority of applicants (to public schools), the best public schools in America are as good, academically, as the best private schools. In terms of diversity, they are vastly better. Assuming that private education is always better than public education is an elitist fallacy. As with every other category of unionized workers, teachers organized into unions because they had no power within the workplace to affect the conditions of their jobs. They operated at the caprice not only of organized management, organized politics — the School Board, and another, often hostile, organized force — parents. Unlike most organized workers, teachers stand together not only for themselves but for a badly disorganized group that would be otherwise helpless — their students. And taxes? Private schools are tax-exempt; they're also eligible for a host of taxpayer-funded programs through state, local and federal departments of education. You could look it up.

  12. garyk
    September 17, 2012


    Your 100% correct in your statements. Your old enough to know how the schools were and what they envolved to.

    If the kids behave and try to do the work they in most cases they can stay in the private school. Fix the schools, if it takes putting the National Guard in the school and in every class room, do it. et the parents envolved. Get rid of the gangs in Public Schools. Whats the dress code? Get the parents envolved! Make the schools in depressed area's a safe haven, a show place for the kids? Get the parents envolved! Don't you find it funny that we can send a football play to college and can't send a good student with no money to attend college?

  13. Adeniji Kayode
    September 17, 2012


    You are right, private school will demand higher school fees and will definitely pay more too.

  14. SP
    September 18, 2012

    @Ned, very honest and true words.

  15. Mandes
    August 10, 2018

    Barbara, I totally agree with you. Corporations can not take control of education. This is reminiscent of the times of Henry Ford when children were filled with information that was exclusively needed for production. It's good that now the students have the right to choose. Moreover, they can freely spend their time without thinking about studying. For example, Blogger recommends a couple of services that can give you freedom from routine. I think it's just amazing.

  16. Leo Banks
    February 7, 2019

    Yes, that also surprised me a lot when I first read about it. Such an effect on teachers is not just that. It is good that students have only a positive influence, as they read edusson review what gives them knowledge. So there is a problem, it needs to be urgently addressed so that the interests of the teachers are not touched.

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