Monday, April 26, 2010

The private sector rewards only true merit — not!

Blaming teachers is the current hottest fad in “education reform,” and the sub-fad is pronouncing that getting rid of “bad teachers” would magically solve all our problems.

Of course there are some truly problematic teachers who shouldn’t be teaching at all, so let’s note that right off the bat. But what I’m addressing here is the frequently repeated claim that the private sector just efficiently gets rid of the bad and rewards the good and doesn’t have these problems. A parent posted the comment below on one of our local education listserves here in San Francisco, in response to one of those claims. I’m reposting it anonymously with her permission.

I have to chime in about the supposed efficiencies of the private sector. My husband works for a large corporation that, like so many, first underwent "extreme hiring" during the boom and then underwent massive layoffs.

If the private sector was so good at weeding those who perform poorly from those
who do well, you'd think only the best and the brightest would be left, but that isn't true. Certainly he works with a lot of great people, but there is still deadwood, including a couple in management. Usually these are people who talk a good line (and so might be best used in sales, to be honest), but never turn in their piece of the project on time.

Here’s my own view. My background in a private-sector industry is in unionized daily newspapers. Our pay scale was based on seniority, from <1 year to >6 years, and then negotiated raises in the contract. "Overscale" pay could be and was awarded on an individually negotiated basis — the equivalent of merit pay, of course.

The universal belief among my colleagues was that overscale was awarded when an employee was in a specific position to leverage management — for example, I made some due to taking on an unappealing position that nobody wanted, in an emergency — or to employees who were particularly aggressive and skilled at negotiating.

There was not a shred of belief in our newsroom that overscale was awarded based on actual pure merit.

I still sometimes see the byline of a former co-worker who was barely functional doing the actual job (reporting, writing, editing) but who was always charming, persuasive and winning, and gave great meeting. That colleague moved up from my former workplace, the San Jose Mercury News, to one of the names you would immediately mention if you were asked to name the nation’s top three or four newpapers.

I’m not sure where the people who believe that the private sector is so great and successful at rewarding the good and weeding out the bad have been working, but I’m not completely convinced it’s on Planet Earth.

— Caroline Grannan, San Francisco


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