On performance pay
Why I support it and why it will probably never work
Coming from a previous career in advertising, I have long been a supporter of the idea of merit pay in teaching. In a sense I think it already happens, with strong teachers being promoted at least partially out of the classroom. And herein lies the problem. Plenty of other non-award industries figured out merit pay long ago. There are many other industries where an individual’s contribution is hard to measure. Yes, teachers are a cost-centre, not a profit-centre but it seems like the corporate world has this figured out pretty well1.
I can see an argument for halting the progress towards a Tayloristic model, but the current system isn’t exactly working. Unions seem to lack the imagination to alleviate workload by asking for a higher total salary spend in favour of less face-time with students. The Australian media are reporting every single day about the teacher shortage, resultant workload and stress issues faced. Enrolments in initial teacher education degrees have dropped by almost 30%. It’s time for some innovative thinking that will recognise good teachers and keep them in the classroom.
I’ve been trying to avoid ‘reaction journalism’ with this newsletter. Instead I aim to take my time and really think around the issues before formulating a response. So I’ve decided to put forward what I see as the myths of performance based pay in teaching. I’ll also outline some of the realities.
Myth 1 - teacher work can’t be measured
For something that can’t be measured, we certainly spend a lot of our time measuring. Having just come out of a term’s worth of reporting, I find this argument weakest of all. As an aside, there is a reasonably sized chorus of teachers who don’t really believe in assessment. Standardised tests are fairly predictive of … well, future standardised test results, but they do make visible the instances where students are being held back.
I’ve worked in schools that use externally generated algorithms to calculate the teacher’s ‘value add’ in senior school, using earlier standardised tests results as an expected baseline for student progress. My performance review took this, but not only this, into account. In industry, the intangibles are sometimes measured by the employee’s coworkers, direct managers and direct reports. I’ve heard it called the “Don’t Be An Arsehole” score and it seems to work quite well for measuring collegiality, reliability, and general professionalism, as the name suggests.
Myth 2 - teachers will abandon their collegiality
The idea that overnight, teachers will stop sharing resources, will stop stepping in to cover someone, will pit classes against one another is slightly insulting. Teachers already compete for promotion, prestige, status and so far, no Tonya-Harding-style assassinations. Merit pay isn’t a zero sum game and most teachers will tell you they’re there for the students. There is also social reward for being a collegial influencer in schools. It feels good to share.
Myth 3 - all the ‘extras’ will disappear from schools
Ok this myth has legs. With the advent of “school choice” (scare quotes intentional) extracurricular offerings have become real differentiators. Public schools don’t have the resources to hire rowing coaches (oh yes, or buy boats) but the expectation is that all schools deliver on enrichment, often for no extra allowance or remuneration.
As a silver lining kinda person, the way I see it, two things might arise out of merit pay that could have a net benefit for teachers. If a merit system failed to recognise the invisible work of teachers, perhaps a correction would occur. Teachers would be less likely to sign up to extra responsibilities. Then they may be either granted an allocation or, if their role is seen to be fundamental to the school’s offering, they might be included in the pay appraisal process. A third thing that may happen is that schools carefully consider whether that offering truly is fundamental to core business. It might be the workload reckoning we have been waiting for.
Reality 1 - the value of teacher work is ideological
The fundamental roadblock when it comes to measuring teacher work is the various and conflicting ways that teacher work is seen and valued. For some, the debating team adds value. For others, project based learning is the way to the elusive critical and creative thinking. Ask 10 school leaders, teachers, parents and students what the purpose of education is and you will get 10 slightly - or even vastly - different answers. If pay is tied to pedagogy (read: ideology), how do teachers know which pedagogy will be rewarded? What if they’re forced to teach programs that they fear will affect their success? Suddenly, school ideology is tied to pay. Job interviews become a true two-way street.
The first problem with this is obvious. Already I have seen commentators making statements like, “I’m a taxpayer, of course I deserve for teacher pay to be tied to NAPLAN results,” or something similarly obnoxious. Governments seem to have little interest in the realities of teacher work, and are grossly underqualified to assign a value to this. The second problem is that there is little shared understanding of what works. In a vacuum of vision, some primary teachers for example will labour under prescriptive and debunked ideologies like balanced literacy, their remuneration stagnating regardless of their hard work.
It seems the merit system relies on teachers working ever-harder not ever-smarter, their success left to chance, just as it ever was.
Reality 2 - unintended consequences for vulnerable groups
Several examples spring to mind. Gifted students often have complex needs; they often make little progress on paper, and they rely on enrichment and sometimes intervention to avoid underperformance. Similarly, teachers may struggle to achieve progress for students with learning disabilities, especially in the absence of intervention and specialist funding. It will be increasingly difficult to attract teachers to these roles and to schools where there are concentrations of these students. Merit pay is certainly not the magic bullet here. Suggesting that this is what will make the difference in outcomes is tantamount to suggesting that teachers are currently sitting on their hands.
Reality 3 - parity is nigh on impossible
I’m an English teacher. My contribution is (in theory) measured fairly neatly in standardised tests. But the marking! For mathematics teachers, setting test papers is the pain point. For PDHPE teachers, the logistics are a killer. How do we fairly measure the results of subjects that don’t have standardised tests? Context-specific measures are a possibility, but how do we measure contributions without putting a ridiculous administrative burden on leaders?
How do we measure the contribution of the learning support teacher, who isn’t attached to any particular student or class? And how do we measure the impact of the part time job-share worker, or the high performer who suddenly needs to take carer’s leave, or the woman who needs to take maternity leave part way through an academic year? I believe there are solutions but have little faith that the powers that be could feasibly account for the complexity of this task.
Australia is in the grips of a teacher shortage. At this critical time, the state government has bizarrely floated longer hours and merit pay as panaceas to the education crisis. This EEF report reckons that it doesn't actually cost that much. It works better when there’s a real threat of performance bonuses being taken away! It seems to me like a neat way for the Premier and Minister of Education to look as though they’re making radical reforms in the interest of students, by taking a low risk action that is poised to lay blame on teachers when it inevitably comes a gutser2.
If you’ve observed some conflicting views and inconsistencies here, you’re probably right. It’s an extremely fraught area for debate. Done badly, the merit pay debate may exacerbate a teacher shortage at a time where Year 12 students in some schools are already without specialist teachers. An assortment of other considerations will likely be overlooked or wilfully ignored, among them the fact that merit pay is doomed to fail if teachers feel they’re already underpaid for the work they do. For many, doing ‘more’ is simply not an option.
If you ignore the gender pay gap!
https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/come_a_gutser translation for non-Aussie readers