31 May 2014

Can Soldiers (or Students) be Trusted to Evaluate Their Superiors?

Those Harvard boys have it all figured out.

Dr. Ronald Ferguson, a professor at Harvard, has developed a measurement of teacher effectiveness. Since I generally like teachers, and since I generally like effectiveness (I suppose you could come up with a host of counterexamples to that, such as effectiveness of bacteria growing behind my ear, which I don't like; generally I associate effectiveness with things that are presumed to be good), I gave it a read. Back on track now.

Ferguson asks students to be the arbiters.

If teachers were military leaders, and students their subordinates, would such a concept work to build a better Army? Too easy, a too-enthusiastic NCO might say.

A less enthusiastic but more analytical family member of mine runs a well respected education consulting firm. Big contracts and big stakes. One of the things he does, per requirements under No Child Left Behind, is to help failing schools develop plans for improvement. These plans range from very simple to very elaborate, but the good ones have one thing in common: they begin with an audit of education practices.

And out of all the crazy ways to figure out what was happening in classrooms, the easiest, and probably most accurate, was to ask the students.

Simply ask them.

We know this instinctively in Army operations. We conduct AARs. But if we know how to assess operations, why don't we do it the same way for leadership?

So back to this Ferguson fellow, who has developed a survey for students that he calls Tripod, which measures three things: content knowledge, pedagogical skill, and relationships. These broad ideas are broken down into more specific constructs, and assessed with multiple measures. But I am intensely intrigued by the three broad themes.

First, I need to say that what makes for an effective Soldier-leader tends to be the same things that make for a good teacher. I have always believed that, and maybe its because those things are common to good people. (On the other hand, I think one could be a really good firefighter or an excellent symphonic conductor and still be a bad teacher or Soldier; I recently read of MAJ Jim Gant, whom David Petraeus reportedly called, "the perfect counterinsurgent." Turns out Gant was a pretty bad Soldier, and a jackass of the first order.)

Ferguson's Tripod hones in on three areas of expertise required of teachers.

Content Knowledge. Pedagogical Skill. Relationships.

Aren't those the same things we demand of our military leaders?

The best NCOs, if you ask any Soldier, are those who demonstrate competency in their job and general warrior tasks, skill in training others, and an ability to work with a team of subordinates and seniors-- content knowledge, pedagogical skill, and relationships. The Tripod fits almost perfectly.

As for the crux of Ferguson's measurement system, student surveys-- what if NCOs were assessed in part by subordinate input on those constructs?

Higher education runs on student satisfaction measures. We implicitly trust young men and women to give an honest appraisal of their professors' performance. We even expect as much in our military education system, to some degree, and in AARs. Those closest to the impact of leadership ought to have a say in judging it, no?

Revolutionary soldiers sometimes elected field grade officers, and while the selection process for officers is only tangential, it demonstrates the idea that followers have a vested interests in the type of leadership they get.

Wrapping up, because this post is quickly nearing record-length-- the end.

(Photo by SSG John Etheridge-- In a ceremony held at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, seven NCOs are inducted into the Sergeant Audie Murphy Club May 24, 2014.)


  1. After getting back from Iraq I graduated and became a teacher. This was right after some sweeping legislation changes in Wisconsin, you may have seen me on tv for this. My current district is looking at new models for the coming year. Some have had students performance (read standardized tests) and evaluations as up to 50% of how a teacher would be evaluated. This worried me, but we do not have much say anymore.
    Now, while I agree that feedback from students is very important, I ask for it formally at least once a quarter and informally on a daily basis, the idea of some of vindictive or less enthused students scares me.
    As a Public Affairs NCO I also asked for feedback from my team and from my superiors, this made me a better soldier, writer and NCO.
    I think where this analogy differs is that soldiers will have to live with the ramifications of their choices. A student, or group of students could get a teacher fired, soldiers would have a harder time reaching the same end. I am also starting to ramble, it always amazes me the connections between teaching and being an effective NCO.

    On a personal note, hope all is well with you. Stay safe. I am glad to see the blog back up again, I lost track while in Iraq in 09-10 and this is great to come back to. Also, I don't think I got to tell you how much I enjoyed your book. Stay safe and wear your reflective belt.

  2. I think the idea makes sense. In business it's common for us to do 360-degree feedback... feedback from our boss, from our colleague, and from our direct reports... and it's valuable from all directions. If leaders aren't getting feedback from below, they're cutting off a very valuable source.