Shareholder Activism, K-12 Edition

The shareholder-activist playbook is simple. "You are working for us," say a group of outspoken people who know how to throw their weight around and how to apply pressure to the board. Pretty soon, the board is putting pressure on the CEO, who starts embarking on high-profile rounds of layoffs, and generally doing the activists’ bidding: otherwise, he’ll probably be gone himself.

Now cast your mind back to Gabriel Sherman’s 6,000-word article on Web 2.0 and the way that it intersected, unhappily, with politics at New York’s elite Horace Mann private school: it turns out that, these days, there are a lot of similarities.

Who should make the rules? In the past, there had been at least a rough assumption that teachers were parental surrogates, authority figures who were charged with making decisions regarding education and discipline, and that the rules governing this kind of behavior were clearly the faculty’s to make. But… now, at times, teachers can seem merely like hired help…

The students were more aware than ever of where the real power resided. So when the Facebook situation was brought into the open, the teachers found themselves powerless to act, and the students did not passively wait to be disciplined.

"The Facebook situation" was a case of students posting extremely offensive and provocative entries about their teachers on the social-networking site. And the upshot, in the end, was that one of the prime offenders became student-body president, while the teachers in question ended up getting fired.

I was reminded of the article by Kevin Maney, who’s a big fan of

Why don’t schools use the Web to ask parents AND students to evaluate teachers? Aren’t they the real customers?

The answer is simple, in a world where students are well aware of the power they can wield, especially when their parents sit on the board. The power dynamics at the school become inverted: students can act with impunity, because "they are the real customers," and teachers live in fear of negative ratings or doing anything which might adversely affect their popularity among the kids.

RateMyTeachers and its like are here to stay, and are undoubtedly useful resources for parents such as Maney. But I think the unintended consequences of explicitly using RateMyTeachers scores to evaluate and pay teaching staff would be enormous. The power which children already hold would become enormously magnified: any time a group of kids wanted to punish a teacher, for any infraction real or imagined, it would be easy to drive down that teacher’s ratings online.

Sherman’s article described the politics at Horace Mann as being a function of the enormous amounts of money now sloshing around the school and the board. But Maney’s talking about public schools, where having too much money is not usually top of the list of problems. Maybe there’s a bigger phenomenon here, linked to the very Web 2.0 sites that precipitated the Horace Mann debacle. The internet gives everybody a voice – even those, like schoolkids, who have historically lacked one. And given a loud voice and a bully pulpit, you don’t need to be Carl Icahn to want to try to throw your weight around.

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