Ranking Talent

Earlier this month, the L.A. Times rattled the education sector by publishing a value-added analysis of 6,000 elementary school teachers in Los Angeles—complete with names and pictures. The blogosphere blew up. (here’s an aggregate list but don’t miss this and this) Even the Secretary of Education weighed in.

But that’s not the topic of this post. This morning, The Times kicked it up another notch by actually ranking those teachers. Among many other things, this will certainly be framed up as yet another attempt to shove perceived business principles down the throats of public educators.

But is this an accepted business principle?

The article, “Why Comparing Workers to their Peers Can Often Backfire“, appeared last week over at Knowledge@Wharton. Here’s a quote (emphasis mine)…

It’s often assumed that employees who are benchmarked against each other work harder, to either hang onto a high ranking or raise a low ranking. However, Iwan Barankay, a management professor at Wharton [School of Business], calls that assumption into question in a new study titled, “Rankings and Social Tournaments: Evidence from a Field Experiment.”

“Many managers think that giving workers feedback about their performance relative to their peers inspires them to become more competitive — to work harder to catch up, or excel even more. But in fact, the opposite happens,” says Barankay, whose previous research and teaching has focused on personnel and labor economics.

And further…

Barankay notes in his paper that future work needs to be done to test the effect of rankings in other work environments and “also to explore whether the underlying parameters can be recovered to pinpoint more detailed mechanisms in the data. Only then can we establish if targeted feedback that takes into account the underlying [differences among workers] can be established to generate a positive casual effect on performance.” At this stage, however, “the aggregate result is that feedback about rank is detrimental to performance,” he writes.

The article concludes with this paragraph…

The critical lesson for employers is to consider how each employee will respond to feedback and then decide whether sharing that information will be beneficial for everyone involved. “A good employer knows its employees very well and should have a good idea how they will respond to the prospect of being ranked,” he says. “The key is to devote more time to thinking about whether to give feedback, and how each individual will respond to it. If, as the employer, you think a worker will respond positively to a ranking and feel inspired to work harder, then by all means do it. But it’s imperative to think about it on an individual level.”

Sound familiar? Admittedly, the caveat here is Barankay’s position is based on peer ranking as a motivational tool independent of pay, but that actually makes the analysis comparable to the L.A. story—at least for now. However, with regard to financial rewards (albeit outside the scope of this post), the following is noteworthy…

Barankay’s interest in rankings as a motivational tool intensified during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which “showed us that offering employees financial incentives based on their performance can have unintended consequences,” he notes, referring to the sky-high bonuses earned on Wall Street in the run-up to the downturn.

But, to me, the bigger idea is the imperative of individualism. Doesn’t it always seem to land there? In fact, I’m willing to bet that notion, by way of instructional differentiation inside classrooms, is partially responsible for lofting certain teachers to the top side of the rankings in the first place.

Unfortunately, though, this is where armchair pundits often miss the mark—but it’s not their fault. The public education sector is collectively larger than the GDP of many developed countries and it’s not easy to think about change at the micro level. But that’s exactly what we must do. If policy is to be grounded in believing every child can learn, should we also assume every teacher can learn—to teach? If not, what’s the distinction?

Whether ranking talent is effective performance management—in education or business—remains unclear at best. However, the ethics of publicly ranking teachers is far less so.

And, finally, I again find the worlds of business and education aren’t as far apart as we sometimes think.

Update: Richard Lee Colvin makes one heck of a point via Twitter.

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