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  • Teacher Performance Pay – A Political Furphy 

    There has been much discussion in the media recently about “Performance Pay” for teachers.

    The Australian government has developed one model and our State government is pursuing quite a different approach. Both are fundamentally flawed. Both are driven by an industrial mind set where workers’ effectiveness can be judged in simple terms (how many widgets did the worker make today? How many clients did the worker see? How many clients did the worker convince to buy more widgets than they first asked for?)

    To put it bluntly, that does not work in teaching!  It is so easy for a politician or an economist to say that we need to pay our “top teachers” more. I think everyone agrees with that. The difficulty lies in defining what “top teacher” means.

    Let me outline just a few of the issues here. First and foremost, teaching is an increasingly collegial activity. Teachers work in teams, they plan together, they share classes, they share resources, ideas and strategies. Less and less are they working as individuals.

    Further to that, the effectiveness of a teacher in 2012 can very much be affected by the teacher who had that same class in 2011 – or even in 2007!

    Similarly, a teacher’s effectiveness is affected by the culture of a school. A teacher might be a great success in one school, where discipline and a learning culture is strong but be far less so in another school where the culture is different. That is something over which the individual may not have much control.

    Then we come to the pupils themselves. Workers in a factory who receive performance pay would be none too happy if different workers were asked to do the same task but were given very different raw materials. It is the same in the classroom. Some classes, in some schools are highly motivated – others not so. Some pupils come from homes where learning and education are highly valued – others not so. Some pupils are intelligent when it comes to maths – but may be not when it comes to art. Some are talented at art, but not in maths or language. And of course, some struggle across the board. How can the effectiveness of teachers be compared across such an un-level playing field?

    Then there is the task of teaching itself. Consider the prep teacher, the year 7 English teacher, the year 12 physics teacher, the year 9 RE teacher, the art teacher. The actual tasks are so many and so varied.

    And even within single tasks, the question remains, “Which teachers should receive greater performance pay: the English teacher whose students spell every word correctly but have no interest in literature, or the one who inspires a passion for literature even if there are lots of mistakes?”

    Equally importantly, there is extraordinary work that teachers do in relationships they build with their students. These things are often not counted. The very way teachers interact with students, in the classroom, in the playground and elsewhere, provides opportunity for these young people to develop and grow into healthy adults – but that’s not actually in the curriculum. But it is fundamental to the work of a good teacher.

    Not for one minute do I suggest that all teachers are the same. Far from it. There are excellent teachers in our schools, professionals of the highest quality. There are adequate teachers in our schools and there are some that should perhaps be encouraged to try other professions.

    People will always have opinions as to who those excellent, adequate and poor teachers are. But the criteria are so broad and the task so complex that it would simply be unfair to pay according to those opinions. Further, there is enormous potential there to damage the important spirit of collegiality that is fast growing in the profession.

    What is more, there is absolutely no research or experience in societies such as ours that demonstrates that performance based pay for teachers makes any positive difference at all!

    And, does anyone really believe that a mere few thousand dollars is likely to move individual teachers from good to great? I certainly don’t.

    Concentrating on performance pay for individual teachers is not the way to go. Rather, governments and society in general should be looking at increasing capacity across the entire profession. Every student deserves an excellent teacher. Building the capacity of the profession as a whole is an enormous task but one that we really must undertake if our education system is to be what we would want it to be.

    Performance pay is such an easy political catch cry. I fear that it is likely to be imposed on us as a political convenience. But it will not do the profession any good at all. And it will not help young people in our schools.