Computer Privacy Practice Tracker – A Proposal

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Back in 2009 I blogged about the need for a consumer reports for schools:  “If the Department of Education wants to help schools save time and money, create an independent foundation, or fund an initiative at a university, modeled on Consumers Reports Labs, and set it to testing school equipment, furnishings, and other items.”

No one took me up on that idea. Nevertheless, let me throw out another notion that I think would be of value to schools, enough so that someone might even be able to make a business out of it: privacy auditing and reporting.

The Situation
Schools are increasingly (if belatedly) recognizing the importance of maintaining the privacy of student and employee data. At the same time, schools are also moving more of this data to a variety of cloud services, each of which maintains its own privacy practices and procedures. On top of this, various state and federal regulations (CIPA, COPPA, HIPPA, Dodd-Frank, ) are continually being reviewed and sometimes reinterpreted in the light of new threats and emerging best practices.

The Need
Most schools have neither the time nor the expertise to wade through government regulations, compare them with dozens of licenses and software as service (SAS) agreements (some of which may change multiple times during a school year), and determine if they are satisfied with the results. Nonetheless, schools are legally compelled to comply with certain regulations. Data breaches are expensive: data recovery and notifying affected parties, installation of new security software and devices, re-training of students and employees, loss of stature and even donors. There may be civil penalties or even criminal charges.

Schools hope for the best and deny that the worst could ever happen.

Corporations, on the other hand, hope for the best but plan for the worst. They call this conundrum “risk management” and may have entire departments working to find the optimum risk-reward ratio. They will look at a number of risk factors including internal policies, partner and vendor practices, and even externalities such as geopolitics and weather.

A Proposal

Imagine a non-profit, b-corporation, or traditional corporation dedicated to helping schools comprehend all of the privacy practices of their partners and how these practices compare with what is required by law. Here’s how something like this might work:

  • A school creates an inventory of all of the software products and cloud-based services they use.
  • The school submits this inventory to Company A – call it Computer Privacy Practice Tracker (CPPT).
  • CPPT collects and audits all privacy practices based on the submitted list of products and services.
    • Audit rules are based on existing federal and state laws and regulations, as well as any other criteria established by the school
  • CPPT reports the findings to the school:
    • a summary report suitable for parents, teachers, administrators and students detailing what data  is shared and with whom, relevant privacy and safeguards, and compliance with applicable federal and state laws
    • a detailed report for administrators containing “as of date” documentation for all relevant documents, recommended remedial actions and goals
  • CPPT monitors all of the companies and alerts school whenever there’s a change in any pertinent privacy policies, the meaning of the change, and its impact on compliance

The devil is in the details. How much would this cost? What liability does the auditor assume? What happens if a software vendor misrepresents their practices? What are the consequences if a school fails to take recommended remedial action? Who audits the auditors? How much of this can be automated, how would it work, and who would control the source code?

Meanwhile, Some Resources
In researching this idea I ran across several resources that may provide the reader with helpful information while Silicon Valley startups wrestle with how to actually create CPPT.

Auditing Privacy Risks, 2nd Edition (pdf) from the The Institute of Internal Auditors.

How Little Data Breaches Cause Big Problems For Schools,” T.H.E. Journal

Managing when vendor and supplier risk becomes your own” from the McKinsey Company.

Halpert, B. (2011). Auditing cloud computing: A security and privacy guide. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons.

The Cloud Security Alliance

U.S. Department of Education Privacy Technical Assistance Center

Maslow, Kohlberg, and 1-1 AUPs

When you are in a profession long enough you begin to notice patterns that beg a question. The case I am putting forth today it has to do with the new wave of adoption of 1-1 devices in schools and the subsequent re-examination of computer acceptable use policies by these schools. This re-examination has caused me to review a number of acceptable use policies and among those I have read there seems to be a correlation between years of technology experience and the approach to dealing with student acceptable use.

My hypothesis is that schools with a longer history of widespread student computer use make decisions about AUPs that represent higher levels in both Abraham Maslow’s (1908-1970) hierarchy of needs and Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1927-1987) theory of stages of moral development.

Maslow
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is so well-known that it needs little explanation. For those wanting a quick review, the Wikipedia entry is quite good.

maslow's hierarchy of needsIf we accept that Maslow is correct in his thinking, and there’s ample evidence that he is, it follows that teachers and school administrators must satisfy lower level needs before they can proceed to higher levels of needs. For purposes of this discussion, we can dismiss basic physiological needs as largely irrelevant to a discussion of 1-1 computing programs. These needs are present among some of the students we serve, but are several layers removed from technology.

This brings us to safety and security, a level in which there is a considerable amount of angst, especially in schools that are adopting 1-1 computing programs in which students will spend large blocks of time at school or home using computers. Educators and parents are often very concerned the risks associated cyberbullying, online predators, the misappropriation of private information, computer malware, and related threats to the psychological and even physical well-being of children. It has been my observation, however, that as schools become more experienced in the use of computers by students they come to realize that such fears are often overblown and that the school’s digital citizenship programs are often more effective in curtailing unsavory behavior and promoting safe practices than they imagined.

As a result, acceptable use policies may begin their life as prohibitory in nature (long lists of what students can’t do) evolve to become less specific and more positive in orientation. (See my previous post, The AUP of the Future.)

To take this a step further, consider Maslow’s description of the self-actualized person and goals for 21st century teaching and learning from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

Maslow’s Self-Actualized Person

Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Are realistically oriented

Reason effectively

Accept other people for what they are

Learning from and working collaboratively with
individuals representing diverse cultures, religions and lifestyles in
a spirit of mutual respect and open dialogue in personal, work and
community contexts

Are spontaneous in thinking, emotions, and behavior

Creativity and innovation

Are problem-centered rather than self-centered

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

Need privacy

no corollary

Are autonomous, independent, and able to remain
true to themselves in the face of rejection or unpopularity

Persistence in learning

Have a continuous freshness of appreciation

The Wonder-Experiment-Learn cycle

Have mystic or oceanic experiences although not
necessarily religious

no corollary

Identify with mankind

Global Awareness

Have deep meaningful relationships with a few people

Communication and collaboration

Have a democratic structure and judge people as
individuals

Exercising the rights and obligations of
citizenship at local, state, national and global levels

Have highly developed ethics

Life Skills, including ethics

Resist total conformity to culture

Life Skills, including personal responsibility and
leadership

What we see here, I think, is a real-world application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reflected in how schools move from a fear-based approach to student computer access to one that empowers students to use the “filter between their ears” in dealing with inappropriate contents and making mindful choices regarding social media and online safety.

Kohlberg
Arguably less studies than Maslow, but nonetheless a major thinker in his field is psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, whose work on the stages of moral development built on the work of Jean Piaget. Kohlberg posited that there were 6 stages of development in moral reasoning.

Stage 1 Obedience and punishment
orientation
Stage 2 Self-interest orientation
Stage 3 Interpersonal accord and
conformity orientation
Stage 4 Authority and social
order-maintaining orientation
Stage 5 Social contract orientation
Stage 6 Universal ethical principles
orientation

These stages of moral reasoning could be uncovered by asking people to describe their responses to various moral dilemmas that were presented to them, the best known of which is the Heinz Dilemma.

Taking a page from the Heinz dilemma, one could put it in terms of a school’s acceptable use policy, perhaps along these lines:

Heidi’s dilemma:
A student is about to be expelled from high school due to accusations, which you know to be false, regarding the theft of final exams from the school’s servers. You know this to be false because your brother admitted to you that he had done it, but swore you to secrecy. He argues that if the principal finds out it he will be the one expelled, something that will devastate your parents and ruin his chances to for college. On the evening before the expulsion, you call the school principal at home and tell her what you know. 

Should Heidi have told the principal?

Kohlberg would argue that what Heidi decides to do is less important than the reasons people give for how they reach their conclusion. Indeed, different answers can be created that fit each of the six stages of moral reasoning.

  • Stage one (obedience): Heidi should not not tell the principal because her brother will be severely punished, and perhaps she will be as well for not coming forward earlier.
Or: Heidi should tell the principal because if the truth was to come out later it would be worse for both her and her brother.
  • Stage two (self-interest): Heidi should not tell the principal because if she betrays her brother she will not be able to live with herself.  He is, after all , her brother and will be for the rest of her life.
Or: Heidi should tell the principal because this is too terrible of a secret to keep and she will regret it for the rest of her life. Besides, her brother will receive an important life lesson which will make her feel better in the long run.
  • Stage three (conformity): Heidi should not tell the principal because their family believes deeply in family first; loyalty is what defines a good sister.
Or: Heidi should tell the principal because she is a solid student who enjoys the trust of the principal and other school administrators. What her brother did is contrary to what good students do.
  • Stage four (law-and-order): Heidi should not tell the principal but  must also be willing to take the consequences that might arise should the truth be revealed in some other way.
Or: Heidi should tell the principal the first student is innocent, that she was wrong for withholding the information, and help her brother accept the consequences for his action.
  • Stage five (human rights): Heidi should not tell the principal because it is more important that her brother do the right thing himself. It is her brother’s responsibility to understand the wrong that he is doing to the falsely accused student and take action.
Or: Heidi should tell the principal because the falsely accused student has a right to be treated fairly  and justly, a right that transcends family loyalty.
  • Stage six (universal human ethics): Heidi should not tell the principal because more harm will come to her brother, someone who up to this point has been an exemplary student who has never done anything wrong, than it would to the falsely accused student who had gotten away with such thefts in the past, and in fact had been the one who urged her brother to do it this time.
Or: Heidi should tell the principal because not doing so would be hurtful to what she, and even her brother, consider to be a higher moral standing of ethical reasoning and behavior. 

Using P21 again as an exemplar of so-called 21st century learning, it is clear to me that restrictive  AUPs align more readily with the reasoning described in stages 1-4 while making choices about appropriate, responsible, and mindful use of technology lean towards reasoning at stages five and six. Constructivist thinking (formulated by Piaget and countless others) permeates 21st century teaching and learning, and all aspects of K-12 policy and practice should support those ends. Enlightened AUPs are but a small part of the picture.

Conclusion
I have been wrong before, and may indeed be wrong-headed in my suggestions of connections between how we govern student use of technology in schools with both Maslow and Kohlberg. It was one of those thoughts that I needed to put down in writing and ask others if it hangs together or not.

Comments are, as always, sought and appreciated.

Losing Cite of the Objective

Humorous cartoon Student saying to a teacher

Which is the academic best citation system?

A.MLA (Modern Language Association) F. AMA (American Medical Association) K. AIP (American Institute of Physics)
B.APA (American Psychological Association) G. ASA (American Sociological Association) L. IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers)
C.CMS (Chicago Manual of Style) H. MHRA (Modern Humanities Research Association) M. AMS (American Mathematical Society)
D. Turabian I.Bluebook N. Vancouver System
E. Oxford J. ACS (American Chemical Society) O. None of the above; All of the above; Who cares?

The answer most of us is of course “O.” Yet there are those who will argue the point; people who will eschew powerful technologies unless it supports their citation system of choice.

This fact was brought home to me by a message in a listserv I frequent (ISED-L) in which the writer reported that teachers in her school did not like Google Docs due to the fact that their MLA citation tool was not on par with that of that  MS Word. OMG, the horror of it all.

I recall my days as a Ph.D. student and later as a thesis advisor,  in which the details of the APA handbook often got the best of me. But some minutious fossils who sat in judgment of student work would refuse to budge until every comma, colon, and period was properly placed. At times this seemed to be their only critique of a student’s hard work; the content and methodology of the research was secondary.

Modern scholars avail themselves of the tools of the modern writer and researcher, such as spelling and grammar checkers, online search utilities, and academic citation generators. A misplaced comma or period in a citation should be of little concern to them as long as interested readers can find the source material. Let computer programmers and experts fix citation software to make it more compliant with arcane rules. Better yet, let the learned societies of the world work together to invent with a 21st century citation system.

In a previous post (In Praise of Good Enough) I wrote that “being part of an elite college preparatory institution brings with it expectations of perfection in everything we say and do, a place where the perfect is the constant nemesis of the good.” Leave well enough alone, I say.

How To Decrease Student Stress in College Prep Schools

Frustrated college studentTen steps for decreasing stress in college prep schools. Feel free to use one or more as discussion points in your next faculty meeting,

10. Start school at 9AM. Teen brains need the rest and later start.

9. Counsel parents and students about sleep deprivation; provide teachers with skills in detecting it.

8.Reduce the amount of refined sugar used in school lunch programs.

7. Cancel Awards Day.

6. Decrease homework by 50%

5. Treat Art and PE and “core” subjects on par with math, science, English, and languages.

4. Teach and practice mindfulness.

3. Stop using AP curricula. Develop your own.

2. Stop giving grades. Use student portfolios instead. Universities will adapt.

And the number one way to reduce student stress in college prep schools?

1. Ask college counselors to advocate to parents and students non-Ivy League and top independent schools in favor of state colleges, universities, and more affordable Canadian schools. Play down Harvard, Yale, Stanford, et al.

Scalability

attack-of-the-50-ft-woman

Some things scale better than others.

Scalability
noun

  1. the ability of something to be changed in size or scale
  2. the ability of something to be used or produced in a range a capabilities

Tech people love to talk about scalability. They especially like to use the term with school administrators when talking about how much money the IT department will need in future years to enable them to properly scale the technology  infrastructure required to support the academic and operational goals of the school.  IT directors will often ask themselves and vendors if “such and such a system” can scale with future needs. Typical of such systems are network performance, disk storage space, speed of applications, processor power, and other QOS (Quality of Service) standards.

An unspoken assumption regarding scalability is that it almost always means scaling up: more storage, faster CPUs, more services, more users, more devices ad nauseam. But in truth scalability includes the ability to contract as well as expand. Some technology scales very easily in both directions while others, as we will see, do not.

Here are some factors to consider in the scaling technology discussion.

  • Size Matters. Systems are scalable when they work for all sizes of people. 
    • Technologists sometimes forget that children have smaller hands and legs than adults. Small children are often asked to adapt to adult sized computer keyboards, pointing devices, and furnishings. Without fully developed their fine motor skills, and keyboarding and pointer skills may be developmentally difficult for them.
    • This is why computer tablets are especially useful with younger learners where the direct, tactile manipulation of screen objects is both more intuitive and developmentally appropriate.
    • Adults, on the other hand, may find that smaller devices such as smartphones are more cumbersome and difficult to read. Perhaps this is in part why smartphones are trending towards larger screens.
  • The Cost of Unused Capacity. Systems are scalable when they are in the “goldilocks zone” not too big, not too small.
    • In many areas of technology cost per unit of measure has fallen over time.
      • For example, the cost of additional random access memory (RAM) has fallen from $189/G in 2005, to $5.5/G in 2013; the cost per gigabyte of hard disk capacity has fallen from $1.24/G in 2003 to $.05/G in 2013.
      • These falling prices have been a boon for technology department budgets, even counting the unintended consequences of bloated software and storage of unnecessary and redundant files. [See Delete This Post.]
      • But just because RAM and storage is cheap doesn’t mean schools should not exercise due diligence in stewarding these resources.
    • On the other hand, Internet bandwidth in the United States is quite expensive compared to other countries (see table from newamerica.net.
      • For example, in Seoul a gigabyte internet connection will set you back only $31.47 per month, compared to almost $1000 per month for the same level of service in Lafayette, LA. Your local service likely likes between these extremes, and competition is gradually increasing in American cities.
      • Be wary of long-term contracts that may lock you in to high prices for unused bandwidth.
      • Some ISPs offer so-called “burstable” bandwidth which purport to allow customers to get faster internet speeds on an as-needed basis. But the fine print in these contracts often reveals that they are not what they are advertised to be.  (see links at end of post)
  • Standardization vs. Personalization. Systems are scalable when personalization is the responsibility of end users, not the IT department.
    • The BYOD model of provisioning student computers coupled with the influx of consumer devices (smartphones, e-readers, and so on) means that tech departments now face a much wider range of support issues than when everyone used the same computer.
    • Support of BYOD models scale best when management of the physical devices brought to campus is limited to cloud-based services and Internet browsers with zero or very few locally installed applications.
    • When it comes to computers that are purchased by schools for use by employees, IT departments must weigh the support costs of standardization versus the desire for personal choice and configuration of devices from faculty and staff accustomed to this in their personal technology use.
    • Personalization does not scale well if it the model of your help desk is “the do it for me” rather than “teach me how do it for myself” department.
    • Finding the right tension between personalization and standardization is part of IT’s mission.
  • Sometimes, just say “no.” Systems are scalable when they do not overwhelm human capacity.
    • Human capacity for change is less than the breadth of opportunity in educational technology. I have witnesses the stress in many of the teachers with whom I consult, teachers who are dealing with (a) the introduction of a 1-1 device initiative, (b) the adoption of Common Core State Standards), (c) pressure from  lawmakers and regulators as manifested in high-stakes testing and anti-union rhetoric, (d) increasingly litigious parents, (e) decreases in school funding, and (f) increases in school enrollment.
    • Businesses who grow to fast fail. (Remember the original People’s Express Airline debacle.) Teachers who are asked to do too much too fast burn out.
  • Uh, that was unexpected. Systems are scalable when their core functionality remains strong over time.
    • A great decision made in 2009 may turn out to be a lousy decision in 2014. A great 1.0 version of a product may, by the time it reaches version 5.0 or 6.0 be so unrecognizable, bloated, and feature laden that simplicity, ease of use, organizational utility are missing and the cost/benefit ratio is negative.
    • One could argue that long in the tooth applications such as MS Office have reached this stage and that cheaper, basic word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation application make more sense for schools. But core applications such as these are “sticky” and difficult to dislodge from user allegiance and institutional inertia.
    • When considering scalability it is important to determine what are the critical features in a product or service that you wish to see develop capacity over time and which are not.
    • “Feature creep” is a well-known phenomenon in software development and sometimes it is the end users who are victimized by it.
    • Software companies and service providers have profit incentives to continually innovate and generate additional revenues by convincing you that current technologies are inadequate. Indeed, there often seems to be an unholy alliance between software and hardware companies to use consume more and more CPU cycles and hard drive space rather than optimize software to be more efficient.
  • You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. Systems are scalable when you can easily get stuff back that you put in.
    • Technology partners are like banks, banks in which you deposit assets (data), the privilege for which you are charged a fee.
    • Should the bank go out of business or another one offer you a better deal, you will want to easily get your data back. This is often easier said than done.
    • Assume that you contract with a company to host your school’s student information system (SIS). The company stores your data in a standard database format such as SQL. So far, so good. Over time you ask for modifications that required modifications to the database as well as special report formats which the hosting company creates using non-standard, proprietary software. Ten years later you decide you want to switch to another SIS only to find that the customizations and reports will make it difficult to get your data out and proprietary report formats and coding are not owned by you. Do you stay with the old system despite its flaws or move to the new system?
    • Economists might characterize this problem as a sunk costs problem, in which the investments you have made in the first system are not recoverable and you need to take the hit and move on. But many people do not think like economists and continue to have faith in and use systems that don’t meet their needs simply because they have put so much into it.
  • This technology is rated PG-13. Systems are scalable when they work across different age groups, cultures, and skill levels.
    • One might think that building user interfaces that are “intuitive” would be, well, intuitive. But this is not the case. Intuition is highly dependent upon age, experience, culture, and patterns of problem solving and thinking. When first introduced, the computer mouse was not intuitive to many users. They would pick it up, move it through the air, run it across the computer screen, or make other errors that we perceive as humorous now.
    • If you must make significant changes to computing systems that are not intuitive for 98% of the users of the hardware or software, I suggest you look rethink your rollout plan.
  • A Greener Shade of (e)mail. Systems are scalable when their power requirements stay the same or decrease even as more users or functionality is added.
    • Energy efficiency of computing devices roughly doubles every year and a half, a trend that needs to be factored when considering a school’s investment in hardware, especially when such devices are part of an always on, always available Internet. A single device may not consume that much power but in aggregate all of the devices in your school do.
    • When calculating your school’s carbon footprint, you must include a portion of the  power consumed by associated hosting services, and even estimates of recharging of school devices that may happen at home.
  • Gilding the lily. Systems are scalable when perfection does not become the enemy of “good enough.”
    • Google has reported that it wants to get 90% of all MS Office users for whom Google Drive will do what they need, leaving the last 10% who need a desktop application to continue to use Office. It may well be that their analysis of the functions available in Google Drive are in fact sufficient for 90% of users, but I suspect they underestimate the amount of effort it will take to change people’s habits.
    • It is the responsibility of the tech department to spend money wisely. People making an in-house newsletter do not need Adobe InDesign to accomplish that. And most users do not need Microsoft Office to write memos or letters, make simple worksheets, or adequate presentations.

Have your own ideas about scalability? Leave a comment!

==========

Resources on burstable bandwidth:

Secrets and Salaries

keep-calmOne of the most damaging practices in independent schools is confidentiality about employee salaries. The secrecy, even paranoia, about compensation leads to organizational dysfunction, inequities (perhaps most strikingly amongst women employees), and a grossly unfair advantage for employers over employees in contract negotiations.

In April of this year, the U.S. Senate “passed” the Paycheck Fairness Act with 52 votes, but it fell short of the filibuster-proof super majority that the Senate must routinely use to “really pass” legislation. You can guess which political party led to its defeat.

But the fact that the bill failed does not suggest that it is without merit. Independent schools, especially those who consider themselves to be innovative, egalitarian, progressive institutions, should embrace the spirit of this legislation and lead the way to transparency.

As reported in Salon, “19 percent of employees’ workplaces formally prohibit discussing wages and salaries, and another 31 percent said it’s discouraged.” This was certainly true in some colleges, businesses, and K-12 schools in which I worked where I did not even know how much my own direct reports were making, let alone colleagues. Not talking about how much one makes is engrained in our culture that employees themselves, to their detriment, are complicit in this silence.

When people do not have access to information that is important to them, they are subject to misinformation, rumor, and innuendo. And when people believe that they are being  treated unfairly, they are less happy, less productive, and more prone to looking for greener pastures. Personally, I would like people to base their opinions about compensation based on facts and not hearsay. In an article debating the pros and cons of salary transparency, the conservative Wall Street Journal suggested  that “one way for employers to head off internal politics: Be even more transparent.”

Transparency about salaries would also further the discussion in school about equity, privilege, and economic disparity in a way that no theoretical discussions in school assemblies or classes can ever do. A Head of School who makes 10 times more than the lowest paid employee in the organization may have some explaining to do.

In my home San Francisco Bay area, the top heads of school earn as much as $647,000 a year. California’s minimum wage of $8.00 per hour would result in some workers being paid a mere $16,640 per year, 1/38th that of the top headmaster.

In 2013, Swiss voters decisively turned down a proposal to limit CEO compensation to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker. But the remarkable fact is that the proposal made it to a national referendum at all, and I believe it represents an awakening awareness of the inequities in pay that continue unabated. And the reality that our most elite and prestigious independent school are also havens of the 1% simply increases the social equity and cognitive dissonance within  organizations that fail to act.

Some readers may remember that when ice cream company Ben and Jerry’s was founded, the company publicly stated that no executive would be compensated at more than 5 times that of the lowest wage employee. This practice continued until the founders left the company and its new owner, giant multinational Unilever, dismantled it under a veil of secrecy.

Consider these words from Occupy.com’s article about wage inequality.

Imagine a world in which all salaries were public. You’d go into that very first interview already knowing what you could expect, not just immediately, but down the road. You’d negotiate without those fears of asking for so little as to be stupid or so much as to be knocked from candidacy completely. You’d do your job, happy in the comfort that you were being paid what you were worth, or, if you were not, you would determine whether you wanted to do something about it, given the information you had. And your employer would be held accountable to certain standards of equal pay for equal work, as well as justifying why, exactly, people were being paid different salaries if they were, because everyone would know if it was otherwise. What would be so bad about that?

What indeed?

Do Away with Annual Performance Reviews

dilbert-com-strips-comic-2012-10-27In my last post I explained while annual reviews suck. It’s easy to criticize something that is as universally reviled as performance reviews; harder, perhaps, to suggest ways to improve them. But let me try…

  1. First off, managers need to change their attitudes about performance reviews. Providing feedback to your employees is not a burden, but among the most important aspects of your job. Never display a ‘tude about reviews as something to get over with, irrelevant, or bureaucratic nonsense. If you think reviews are important and helpful your employees will pick-up on this and approach them positively.
  2. Feedback is best when delivered at the appropriate time, closer to the specific behavior or event, rather than something put on the shelf and doled out weeks or months later.
  3. You may find it useful to distinguish between feedback and evaluation. (Feedback is designed to provide guidance to improve performance. Evaluation is placing a qualitative judgment on performance based on criteria. Feedback is formative; evaluation is summative. It has also been described this way: “When a chef tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment,” he said. “But when the customer tastes it, that’s summative.” )
  4. When documenting performance that may end in dismissal, err on the side of being transparent with the employee and, of course, following all of the procedures in your employee handbook and as required by employee contracts, or state or federal laws.1
  5. Assertiveness training may help some supervisors and employees avoid the tendency in schools to pull their punches when it comes to potential conflict due to honest feedback as well as reduce defensiveness and blaming. It’s been my experience that many IT managers get into their roles due to their technical competence with little preparation for managing people. If all you have to draw upon is your past personal experience with managers, they may prove to be insufficient in helping you understand the nuances of human relations.

I’ve saved the best advice for last. It may also be the most controversial.

The best way to improve annual performance reviews is to do away with them!

Consider this: If you are engaged in a regular program of formative feedback, what is the purpose of the annual review? Your job as an IT supervisor is to create a culture in which their is continuous improvement in people, systems, practices, procedures, and outcomes. You establish goals in these areas and continuously assess progress against goals. Yes, there is a seasonality and rhythm to the school year that impacts what IT departments do, but the same is true in businesses with sales cycles, holidays, and quarterly and annual earnings goals. Let the academic schedule and practices regarding teacher contracts inform, but not control, how you manage feedback in your tech department.

  1. I have never quite understood school’s  fascination with contracts for administrative employees.  I do understand the rhythm of the school year and the close interaction between staff and faculty, yet How these positions need to be married to the school year and not treated like at-will employees in any other business is beyond me.

Annual Reviews Suck

Words_You_Don't_Want_to_Hear_During_Your_Annual_Performance_Review_Cover

How can I put this delicately?

Annual performance reviews suck.

Annual performance reviews suck because:

  • they are designed for employers, not employees.
  • they are annual. In many organizations that really means every other year, or perhaps never.
  • they are often hurried and completed by a manager who has puts in little time in the process and who is only invested in the outcome if there’s a “problem” with the employee that requires some serious CYA action.
  • schools foster a climate on non-confrontation. Being indirect is valued above straightforward honesty. (See previous post)
  • they are disconnected from actual job responsibilities and performance. In the name of standardization, HR departments create forms that try to apply to entire classification of employees. “Timeliness” for example may mean being to work on time, finishing a task within a given standard operating procedure estimate of time required, or just getting something done before a deadline.
  • rating scales are subjective. “Exceeds expectations?” Please. I have pretty damn high expectations. No one’s that good. On the other hand, my expectations are that you are a screwup and in the wrong job, but you fooled me and actually did better than I had dared to hope.
  • they are usually linked in time to pay raises. Like student grades, performance reviews are summative and linked to everyone else in the organization (or class  in the case of students). Doesn’t matter if the employees has been with you for 3 months or a year, they all get reviewed at the same time. This practice puts undue time pressure on managers and HR departments alike to “get reviews over with.”
  • they are often linked to compensation decisions. Employees are understandably interested in whether or not they will be getting a raise in salary or additional benefits and simply want the manager to cut to the chase. Any feedback provided prior the manager giving the employee the bottom line  is simply background noise.
  • they create winners and losers. Assume that as a manager you are told that you have 3% in salary increases for your department for the coming year, and you have the authority to allocate this 3% across the department as you see fit. The easy, non-confrontational thing to go is give 3% across the board. This is often the practice in schools. Such a practice disregards historical pay inequities, outstanding performers (you know ‘em when you see ‘em), and turns sticks into carrots (or vice-versa).
  • they are not fun but in fact dreadfully boring and even demotivating. In my thirty years of management experience I have never heard anyone say “I’m so looking forward to my performance review today.” The best thing I can say about them is that I usually took employees off-site for lunch on such occasions, which was a nice respite from the office for both of us.

So what’s the alternative? That’s the subject of my next post.