From the Boardroom to the Classroom: Can Corporate America Inform Teacher Evaluation?

Angela Minnici
Jenni Fipaza

Deloitte recently quizzed executives about their views on performance management. A whopping 58 percent of those who took the public survey believe that their current performance management approach “drives neither employee engagement nor high performance.”

Sounds a bit like the national conversation about teacher evaluation systems across the United States, right? As tempting as it is to think that business has identified the silver bullet to improving employee performance, apparently leaders from that world don’t think so.

Instead, it seems like we’re all struggling to find better ways to engage employees, move them from average to exceptional performance, and keep high performers from leaving. But as policymakers and wonks debate the merits of teacher evaluation systems, are there at least some lessons learned from corporate America that we should be paying attention to?

Netflix was an early experimenter in jettisoning formal performance reviews for its 120 employees in 2001 (and now for its over 2,000 employees today). Instead, it opted to ask managers to have “conversations about performance as an organic part of their work.” And just this month, Deloitte—one of the country’s largest consulting firms, with some 65,000 plus employees—revealed in Harvard Business Review that it has been experimenting internally as well. Echoing educators’ widespread concerns over the amount of time required to complete annual teacher evaluations, Deloitte estimates that their previous annual performance rating process took just shy of 2 million hours per year.

Deloitte also found that “once-a-year goals are too ‘batched’ for a real-time world, making conversations about year-end ratings generally less valuable than conversations in the moment about actual performance.” Deloitte defined its three objectives for performance management as recognizing, seeing, and fueling performance and “its hallmarks are speed, agility, one-size-fits-one, and constant learning…”

How did Deloitte arrive at this new process and what can we learn from it to improve teacher evaluation?

To guide its redesign process, the company surveyed 60 of its high-performing teams and compared them with a random sample of employees. Members of high-performing teams were more likely to agree or strongly agree that:

  • “My coworkers are committed to doing quality work.”
  • “The mission of our company inspires me.”
  • “I have the chance to use my strengths every day.”

Because this last item proved most powerful organization-wide, Deloitte streamlined its performance management system to focus on helping employees use their strengths. Rather than annual goal-setting and performance reviews, “performance snapshots” are used to measure performance more often.

Deloitte also asked every team leader to have “radically frequent” check-ins with each team member—weekly meetings to set expectations, “review priorities, comment on recent work, and provide course correction, coaching, or important new information.”

Performance management in education takes place in a vastly different organizational and legal context from corporate settings. But three of the larger lessons that Deloitte uncovered through judicious navel-gazing strike us as holding water in education too:

  • Strengths-based approaches drive higher performance—High performance at Deloitte correlated with staff’s perception that they had the chance to “use my strengths every day” and drove the firm’s shift toward a strengths-based approach to performance management. This tack defies the conventional focus in teacher evaluation on identifying low performers or weaknesses needing improvement rather than pinpointing strengths and creating the teams or support system needed to capitalize on them. How powerful would it be in teaching to maximize not just individual teacher strengths but collective ones as well? It would require us to shift toward a systems approach of improving performance (see more on this approach in our recent brief: Title II, Part A: Don’t Scrap It, Don’t Dilute It, Fix It).
  • Time with leaders matters for fueling performance—Deloitte’s weekly coaching-conversations with team leaders catalyzed both more accurate “performance snapshots” and truly supportive growth. Making this work in K-12 education would require a radical restructuring of the school day/week to accommodate teacher learning. Some charter school networks have already made the leap, such as Uncommon Schools (Bambrick-Santoyo 2012). What would it take to do it in public school settings? What would principals and teacher leaders need to do to provide strengths-based learning systems that fuel performance?
  • Performance management must move beyond compliance with mandates—Asking the right questions to drive the performance management process is critical. For Deloitte, the question ultimately became, “What is the richest view of you?”—a refreshing change from, “What is the simplest view of you?” If teacher evaluation systems are going to drive high-quality instruction and increased student achievement, systems created to meet the bare minimum federal or state mandate will have to give way to performance management systems geared to get the results we’re all aiming for. And we’ll need to do it even with the well-documented challenges to collecting accurate and consistent data about teacher performance (Kane, Kerr, and Pianta, 2014).

Few of today’s teacher-evaluation systems are up to the new demands of ratcheting up teacher performance. They’re just too cumbersome, deficit oriented, and ill-suited to provide information in real time. As policymakers continue to discuss the role of teacher evaluation through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, let’s take a cue from our business colleagues and figure out how we can create an approach to performance management that gives school and district leaders the continuous feedback, talent management, and information they need to capitalize on their teachers’ strengths.

Angela Minnici, Principal Researcher at AIR, is director of the Education Policy Center and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders.

Jenni Fipaza is researcher at AIR specializing in educator quality and school leadership.