Performance pay is not the answer to the “crisis in education”

In 2011 the Gillard Government announced $1.3 billion in funding for performance pay for teachers to commence in 2014. A decision inherently flawed and contradictory to evidence concerning improving teacher and education quality. The debate over performance pay still rages in the media, with many believing performance pay is key to improving teacher quality and solving the ‘crisis in Education.’ These claims, however, are sorely misguided.

Coverage of the pay dispute between the Victorian Government and teachers’ union has been particularly prolific, with the long-running industrial dispute reaching agreement in April this year. Premier of Victorian Dr Denis Napthine agreed to drop the issue of performance pay, despite still wanting to convince teachers it was the way forward.

“We believe that performance-based pay has merit, but we need to work more with the teachers to convince them of the validity of that,” he said.

Frankly, Dr Napthine, I completely disagree.

Performance bonuses for teachers is unworkable with limited evidence of benefits for students.

Assessing teacher performance, in order to decide who receives a bonus is difficult. A number of studies have ascertained qualities evident in master teachers: enthusiasm, knowledge of pedagogy and content, engaged and interested in students, fair, and a sense of humour (with a capacity for effective discipline), are often-cited. However, assessing these qualities is time-consuming and expensive, thus contributing to the many issues associated with performance pay for teachers.

The Federal Government has proposed possible criteria for payment could include student achievement as measured on standardised tests; teaching experience; qualifications; content knowledge; pedagogical content knowledge; extracurricular contributions; and participation in professional development. Precisely how these criteria could be assessed has not be confirmed.

Rewarding one teacher of one class ignores the influences of other teachers and the school as a whole. Student achievement is the result of a complex interplay of factors, many years of teaching and learning, and cannot be isolated to one particular teacher. Further, the progress of students is a collaborative process. By rewarding individual teachers, the capacity for teamwork could be limited, by instead promoting an environment of independent work where individual achievement is rewarded through remuneration.

Many industries reward high-performing employees with pay bonuses. These industries are generally linked to profits, not educating young minds. It is not straight forward or appropriate to pay based on empirical evidence in teaching. In addition, it does not send a good message to students: “I want you to do well because it earns me a bonus,” completely undermining the student-centred philosophy.

Standardised testing scores neglect the hetrogenous nature of the classroom environment. Although all classes are challenging in their own way, some classes are by nature more ‘challenging’ to teach than others. Rewarding teachers for high-achieving students could lead to resentment amongst teachers when timetabled to less academically gifted classes. This could exacerbate issues of teacher recruitment into traditionally more difficult to staff disadvantaged, rural and remote areas, as teachers prefer positions in more affluent suburbs where it is ‘easier’ to get performance pay.

Performance pay rewards grades over student experience.

As a teacher I continuously strive to promote mastery (understanding) over performance (grades). Personally, I’m more interested in my students developing a positive disposition towards mathematics; learning how to communicate effectively; and increasing their capacity for mathematical reasoning.

Many students come into my classroom with years of ‘mathematical baggage.’ They’ve developed the mindset that they ‘can’t do maths’ and that it is exceedingly boring and repetitive (I’m sure many maths teachers can sympathise with me). Working with them to change this mindset takes many months and lots of patience: it’s often not until term four that significant changes have occurred.

I could ‘teach to the test’ and students could potentially achieve better grades earlier, (thus meeting a criteria to score myself some performance pay), but this would be entirely discordant with the needs of my students. I’m not willing to comprise the best outcomes for my students for a bonus on my paycheck.

Prominent educational psychologist Carol Dweck advocates emphasis on mastery approaches to learning, as these approaches facilitate more adaptive learning strategies, greater persistence and problem solving. Emphasis on performance is more commonly results in learned helplessness and decreases persistence in learning mathematics.

Performance pay cannot coexist with a mastery over performance educational philosophy.

If we want to improve the teacher quality performance pay is NOT the way forward. Instead money should be invested in reducing contact hours and increasing access to professional development for teachers.

Australia has some of the highest number of teacher contact hours in the OECD. In 2009 primary school teachers had average net contact hours of 874 per year, whilst secondary teachers worked around 800. The OECD averages were 779 and 656 respectively. By reducing contact hours teachers would have more time available for lesson preparation, thus increasing capacity to deliver engaging lessons.

Teachers don’t enter teaching for the pay. Good teachers are not motivated to teach for pay. The self-satisfaction associated with seeing a student achieve when they thought it wasn’t possible is worth more than a $5000 bonus.

Students stand to reap far greater benefits if the $1.3 billion allocated for performance pay was redirected to improving teacher quality through increasing professional development (particularly in rural and regional areas) and decreasing contact hours. A far more workable solution to the crisis in education.


About madelinebevs

Mathematics teacher and researcher. Runner. I'm excited by mathematics education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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One Response to Performance pay is not the answer to the “crisis in education”

  1. Pingback: Firing teachers on the basis of NAPLAN scores? Really? | matthitude

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