In calling last week for wholesale changes to the way public school teachers are evaluated, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten noted that her union had developed its plan in conjunction with some of the nation's leading authorities in the field, including Harvard researchers Susan Moore Johnson and Thomas Kane. But it was hard not to feel in her bold remarks the spirit of another longtime educator: Peter Drucker.
For years, Drucker warned that, in a knowledge economy, there was no choice but to take the kinds of steps that Weingarten is now urging to measure the quality of classroom instruction and, where necessary, to remove bad teachers.
"Schools are…becoming much too important not to be held accountable—for thinking through what their results should be, as well as for their performance in attaining these results," Drucker wrote in his 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society. "To be sure, different school systems will give different answers to these questions. But every school system and every school will soon be required to ask them, and to take them seriously."
Yet Drucker would have appreciated another truth reflected in Weingarten's National Press Club speech: the inherent complexity in devising a measurement framework that is fair and focused on the right things.
Indeed, one might broadly interpret Weingarten's push to make use of "good and meaningful data" as an imperative not just for our sick schools but also for any enterprise. The truth is, no matter what sector they're in, relatively few organizations define and measure results very well.
"A Tool of Control"
For starters, too many corporations, nonprofits, and government agencies fail to look at metrics as resources that employees should use to improve their performances. Instead, the boss mainly wields them to criticize and penalize. "As long as measurements are abused as a tool of control," Drucker asserted, "measuring will remain the weakest area" for most managers.
Even finding the right mix of measures is tricky. In his 1973 classic, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Drucker pointed out that many businesses use annual return on investment as a key determinant in judging success. He then went on to tell the story of a chemical company that failed to develop a much-anticipated new product for three years. When pressed on why there was such a delay, the executive in charge fessed up: "My entire management group gets its main income from a bonus geared to return on investment. The new product is the future of this business. But for five or eight years there will be only investment and no return. I know we are three years late. But do you really expect me to take the bread out of the mouths of my closest associates?"
Today, teachers are typically evaluated when an administrator makes a quick-and-dirty visit to the classroom once a year—a method that sheds little light on what's actually happening day to day and gives high marks to too many mediocre educators. In her address, Weingarten advocated a far more comprehensive approach: classroom observations, self-evaluations, appraisals of lesson plans, portfolio reviews, rigorous assessments of student work, and test scores that demonstrate real growth throughout the year.
Meeting the Mission
Drucker would have undoubtedly been impressed by Weingarten's instinct to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. "These two types of measures are interwoven—they shed light on one another," he wrote.
But there is also a danger here. Lots of executives get so caught up in counting this and analyzing that—often rolling out fancy IT systems to capture a whole host of numbers and other indicators—they forget that any measurement is at best meaningless and at worst counterproductive if it's not done in the service of helping the organization meet its mission.
Implicit in this notion, of course, is that the organization has a clearly articulated mission that it fully embraces—what Drucker described as its "purpose and very reason for being." Many do not.
"Finding the right metric has a lot less to do with technology than it does with the culture of the organization," says strategy consultant Howard Dresner. "The question is: What are the right metrics that will reinforce the right behavior?"
Teachers Teaching Managers
In his book The Performance Management Revolution, Dresner compares the data that most companies generate to what appears on a scoreboard at a sporting event: "It doesn't tell spectators anything about the play action that led to the teams achieving that score. It doesn't provide any information to the coach of the trailing team that would help it catch up and overtake its opponent. It doesn't tell individual players what they can do to play better for the remainder of the game." What's missing is context.
To her credit, Weingarten is envisioning an evaluation process that doesn't lose sight of the big picture. "We propose rigorous reviews by trained expert and peer evaluators and principals, based on professional teaching standards, best practices, and student achievement," she said. "The goal is to lift whole schools and systems: to help promising teachers improve, to enable good teachers to become great, and to identify those teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom at all."
If Weingarten and the teachers' union reach their aims—and given the depth of the challenge and the politics involved, it's far from certain that they can—they will do no less than lift the fortunes of millions and millions of young people. Nothing could be more crucial for the health of society. But there would be a pretty nifty side benefit, as well: By measuring results so skillfully, the teachers would provide a powerful lesson for managers everywhere.