Performance Pay for Teachers Problematic

The National Party have been pushing performance pay for teachers for some time and it has popular support because it suggests a process of rewarding good teachers and providing incentives to improve for those who aren't doing as well. It sounds simple but is essentially flawed.

As Hekia kept reminding people in her pre-budget speech, teachers are "professionals" and this means they join of a number of occupations that share that classification like doctors and lawyers. All professions share certain characteristics, they all involve a high level of education, training and constant professional development. They all require a high degree of social responsibility and ethical behaviour and there is also a considerable expectation of trust and confidentiality needed in the performance of their work. Most professions involve complex interactions with people and the unpredictability and often high stakes nature that influences these interactions can be demanding and stressful.

Most professionals are paid at a rate that recognizes their qualifications and the considerable responsibilities that comes with the work. Job satisfaction is not based on profit margins but achieving positive outcomes for their clients, patients or students. All professions have ethical and professional standards that are used for appraisals and peer reviews and it is these standards that guide decisions around competence or unacceptable behaviour. What drives and influences performance for most professionals comes from the job satisfaction of achieving positive outcomes and having the respect of their peers.

Performance pay is a useful incentive for nonprofessional jobs like fruitpicking or shearing where performance expectations are clear and measurement is easy. Paying a worker for the amount of fruit picked or number of sheep shorn provides an incentive to work harder and the employer is able to pay more because there is a direct relationship between worker output and the money available to pay them.

When performance pay is applied to professionals it is hugely problematic when it is essentially a measure of output. Being a doctor or a teacher is not like shearing sheep, every student or patient requires an assessment of needs and providing treatment or teaching programmes that can meet those needs. Removing wool from a sheep is relatively straight forward as they are all a similar size and shape, an identical process can be used for each and the end result is easily quantified. Meeting the needs of people is far more complex and there are many factors that influence outcomes that are beyond the control of the professional. A student's learning is dependent on the support of their home and their own readiness to learn and if there are emotional stresses from dysfunctional family relationships their focus on learning will be impaired. For a doctor, successful treatment can be dependent on their patient's ability to take their medication as required or change negative elements in their lifestyle like alcohol consumption or smoking.

If a group of people were assembled to assess the performance of a single professional they would probably have different criteria, for some the ability to communicate and empathize would have the highest priority, for others it may be their knowledge and finesse in carrying out a particular procedure or activity. Both are valid but the weighting for each may differ. As a teacher I have taught in a number of schools, both in New Zealand and in the UK, and the way my performance has been assessed has varied hugely.

I have often taught classes full of children with high learning needs and challenging behaviours, some of those classes I have managed extremely well and received high praise from colleagues and parents, but in others I have struggled and my competence was questioned. If someone observed my teaching in the classes where I struggled they would have witnessed my lack of ability to manage negative behaviour and to maintain an atmosphere that supports learning and they would have naturally concluded that I wasn't up to the job. No matter how competent a teacher is they also rely on the support of colleagues, the parents and the culture and systems within the school. The often used phrase "it takes a village to raise a child" is very true, and when applied to teaching it means a high level of collaboration, respectful relationships and shared goals .

If performance pay was applied to teachers I have a number of questions that need to be answered:

How will the criteria be fair and address the fact that class size, children's learning needs and backgrounds and school communities vary greatly?

Who will make the judgments on performance and how will this be moderated to maintain consistency across all schools?

Will all teachers who meet the criteria be rewarded or will pay be capped in each school so that some will miss out?

If teachers have to compete for a limited pool of money will this not result in a breakdown of collegial behaviour?

What will be the impacts on good teachers who find themselves in situations where their performance is compromised by factors beyond their control?

When most systems of performance pay have failed in other countries, what are the successful models that will inform ours?

Will the teaching profession's own trialled models recognizing the skills, knowledge and attributes of teachers be used to determine remuneration and recognition of performance or will the profession have a system imposed on them?

Our experience with the implementation of National Standards where no trial was used, collaboration was discouraged and a flawed system was imposed means that we hold little confidence in any system of performance pay supported by this government.


Catherine Delahunty said…
Excellent blog Dave, I am very concerned about "League tables for teachers" and this approach to supposedly raising quality education. The cynic in me thinks its got nothing to do improving education for children or valuing teachers as professional!
bsprout said…
Thanks, Catherine. I think you're quite about the intent behind this proposal, there is no support in research or in the evidence of similar attempts overseas. I am sure it is a populist initiative that sounds good to anyone who has little understanding of the profession.

Hekia is intelligent and articulate but she struggles to be convincing when attempting to support both increasing class size and introducing performance pay.

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