Toxic Cultures

It was not uncommon when I was growing up for a parent to hit a child that misbehaved. Today that is considered abusive and wrong. Strategies such as time out are much more humane, yet effective.  There is often a better way of dealing with problems when we adapt and learn from the past.

Microsoft realized that it had a problem when it began to lose market share.  The culture at Microsoft, which effected this decline, used to be “loathed” due to an employee system of “stack ranking.” Under this system Microsoft started falling behind its competitors. Hamilton Verissimo, program manager at Microsoft, had this to say about his employment at MS. “It’s a very inefficient company, with very little or nothing being done to make it better. MS has a performance review system that values “individual” contributions over team work. That leads to dysfunctional products. The internal (Microsoft) culture is about competition, which is unfortunate.”

Shura Ovide wrote an article called, “Why Microsoft Dumped Stack Ranking.” In this article she wrote, “Microsoft is killing “stack ranking. The sometimes loathed employee-review system has been a fixture of Microsoft for years. Lately, critics said the system — under which managers were forced to rank employees along a “bell curve” — has made Microsoft a more cutthroat and political place to work. The critics said the biggest bonuses were doled out to workers who learned to game the system in their favor when employee review time rolled out.”

If you’ve been following the news lately you may be having a feeling of déjà vu. This toxic culture sounds all too familiar doesn’t it? That’s because it is analogous to the new teacher evaluation system (APPR – performance review) pushed into law in New York, tied to high-stakes testing. “You want teachers to perform … then incentivize performance with performance bonuses,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

As successful companies innovate and adapt, education is stuck in the past, relegated by old strategies that failed to produce results. Ironically, as reformers cry for the necessity to innovate, the rules for school reform are outdated. They compare school districts to corporations, however businesses don’t have the same issues as public education. For one, businesses don’t have to deal with poverty.  Valarie Strauss of the Washington Post writes,  “Many school reformers seek to privatize the public education system, and they want the public education system to be operated like a business, even though it is a civic institution not designed to function within a business model.”  She quotes William Doyle, the 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar to study global education best practices, in her article as saying, “No leading company would place the entire foundation of its business on inaccurate, unreliable, system-distorting and often “bad” data like multiple-choice standardized tests.”

I’m not surprised, and you shouldn’t be either, by the close similarities in today’s educational “reform” movement and the toxic culture at Microsoft in the past.  “The company saw its stock price plummet, it made ill-advised acquisitions, demonstrated poor capital management and suffered a significant loss of market share. The once-dominant software giant lost its way.”

Educational policies in New York have also “lost their way.” With Bill Gates’ money influencing policy makers to adopt the common core, education is now performing like the old Microsoft.

Microsoft today, however, is changing. They have a new CEO, Satya Nadella, that is transforming Microsoft’s culture and its stock price is on the rise once more. The system of ranking employees was dysfunctional and cutthroat. It didn’t work, so it was abandoned in order for the company to thrive. Microsoft’s ability to change its toxic policies enabling it to succeed in the marketplace is a lesson from which we can all learn.

This climate of stack ranking performance review didn’t work for Microsoft and it won’t work for education.  I am a teacher that works in a support staff position in my school. For seventeen years I have collaborated with most of the teachers in my building. In the mornings I co-teach in classrooms on many different grade levels.  In the afternoons I pull students out in small groups. I see things differently than classroom teachers because I teach every grade level. Fortunately, I often get to interact with students for more than a single school year. From this perspective I have witnessed fantastic teachers that have incredible connections with students during a given school year. This relationship can have lasting effects on that student for years to come. Like a construction worker, they have laid the foundation upon which a future structure will stand. Unfortunately, sometimes the results of this work do not show up immediately on yearly assessments. The following year the same student may have a less qualified or effective teacher, however once the foundation is in place the achievement for this student begins to show. The students’ results on annual testing can display gains in spite of a less effective teacher as a result of this foundation laid by the previous teacher.

In addition to my teaching responsibilities I also facilitate the chess club in my building. I tell my chess players that the loser always learns more than the winner if they take the time to reflect upon the game and analyze their mistakes. I feel that we are failing an entire generation of children because the educational policies in New York are faulty. We have an opportunity to learn from the past. We can reflect upon and analyze the mistakes in education and compare them to the restructuring at Microsoft.

The toxic culture of stack ranking employees didn’t make sense for Microsoft and it doesn’t make sense for New York teachers today.  We are failing an entire generation of children.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  We can do better.

by Mark Hegenauer

You can follow me on Twitter – @Chessmanmark or subscribe to this blog at

Read these previous entries.

The Exploitation of Your Child April 27, 2015

It’s Time For the Pendulum to Swing April 24, 2015

You Can’t Beat City Hall April 18, 2015

A Revolution is Growing April 11, 2015

Dear New York State Legislator April 7, 2015

Political Pawns April 1, 2015

NYS Common Core Tests Are Wrong For Our Children March 30, 2015


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