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Why are we afraid to even talk about performance pay for teachers?

Contrary to media reports, a new study by policy thinktank the NZ Initiative does not recommend performance pay for high achieving teachers, says its author Martine Udahemuka. But still, she asks, shouldn’t parents and educators at least be having the conversation?

First, let’s set the record straight. A couple of weeks ago we released a report in which we detailed a number of strategies used in parts of the UK and the US to lift student achievement and to tackle persistently failing schools. Subsequent news headlines (here and here) claimed we had made a recommendation for performance-based pay. We had not. We instead documented what we observed abroad, including the The District of Columbia (Washington DC)’s teacher appraisal system [PDF] linking pay to performance.

New Zealand has too many schools that have failed to meet minimum performance benchmarks, some for more than a decade. The New Zealand Initiative uncovered this uncomfortable truth in our previous work.

So as a parent, how can you be sure that your child is not in one of these schools? Or better yet, how do you know if your child’s teacher is effective? Surely teachers reading this can too think of a peer or two who could do more to pull their weight.

But for some reason juxtaposing teachers and performance rewards seems to always get people’s backs up.

So why were we interested in Washington DC in the first place? Well, the public school system there has in the last few years turned its poor educational outcomes around – and perhaps there is something New Zealand could learn from the district’s approach.

Students in DC’s public school system had for years occupied the last spot on the nation’s league table. Parents had lost faith in the system and voted with their feet: by 2010 almost half of the city’s students had found an escape hatch in charter schools. And all of this happened despite the city spending more per student than most of the largest public school systems in the America.

Eric Bethel, an educator for the DC Public School System, passes time between teacher observations at Eaton Elementary School on February 10, 2011, in Washington, DC. Education reformers in the US are pushing for more rigorous, quantifiable ways to evaluate teachers, and DC is in the vanguard of that effort. DC’s controversial system is known as IMPACT. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

To tackle these dismal educational outcomes, administrators focused on raising the quality and status of the teaching profession. Working with teachers, they developed an appraisal framework that would clarify expectations, provide regular feedback, facilitate collaboration, drive professional development, and retain great people.

In an effort to reward and retain excellent teachers, Washington DC decided to link pay to performance. This was only one of the many objectives of the city’s teacher appraisal system implemented in 2009. Still, that’s the aspect people seem to have latched on to.

DC’s system relies on multiple indicators of performance including student achievement, classroom observations, and student surveys, with appraisals done regularly throughout the year.

‘But a teacher performance pay scheme could be dangerous in New Zealand’

Seven Sharp covered our report and asked teachers what they thought of teacher performance-pay. Unsurprisingly, the teachers interviewed were against such a proposal. Separately, Gareth Morgan’s Opportunities Party (TOP), Labour’s Chris Hipkins, and Save Our Schools also expressed similar concerns.

Let’s take the common fears one by one (quotes are the teachers’ responses to questions from Seven Sharp).

Fear 1: “You have students who are hungry, who have complex family circumstances, who have a variety of contingent factors that’s impacting on their ability to achieve. And if that teacher is getting measured against another teacher who is outperforming them because of student achievement then that creates inequality within the profession.”

And fairly so. Besides student characteristics, out-of-school factors explain a great deal of what a student will get out of schooling. Student don’t leave their home experiences outside the school gate to pick up again on their way home after school.

In DC, student achievement is important and is in fact given the most weight, but here’s the catch: Their appraisal system fairly acknowledges that classrooms are different and teachers teach different students. Where New Zealand teachers are beaten with the “85% of students must meet a national benchmark” stick, teachers in DC are instead valued for the progress their students have made towards the national goal.

Here is how DC’s system recognises differences between students and classrooms. Before making a judgement on how a teacher has performed in relation to student scores, a number of student and classroom factors known to contribute to student achievement are thrown in the mix. They consider prior achievement, attendance, family income, and language and special education needs.

But beyond individual student factors, the framework also recognises that what happens in the classroom can also make a difference to how much learning happens. The appraisal then considers the number of students in the classroom, variation in classroom test scores from the previous year, and the backgrounds of all other students in the classroom.

Fears 2 and 3: “Teachers will be less likely to share and collaborate if… performance pay comes in. At the moment everybody is just so open to sharing and into giving people ideas and resources and help.” And “We believe that it takes a whole team to educate a child and there is no way that competition and collaboration can co-exist.”

It’s baffling to imply that collaborating with colleagues and being rewarded for adding value to student outcomes are mutually exclusive. But DC’s teachers too complained of the same barrier – so the district addressed it. Under the commitment to the school community component, teachers are judged on how much they support and collaborate with their peers. Since what gets measured gets done, DC worked with teachers to identify essential components of a teacher’s performance and then included them in the appraisal rubric.

And lastly, Fear 4: “The territories they are looking at for this research, we outperform massively at an international level.”

This one, I am not sure how to tackle without implying that the fear itself is silly. It’s simply foolish to think that because we may be performing better on average there is absolutely nothing to learn from countries that have experienced similar challenges.

Would it make more sense to learn from countries that consistently top international rankings, or countries that struggle with similar problems and have actually implemented ways to tackle these very challenges? It is similar to a high school teacher telling a student who is struggling that the only classmate they can learn from is the one who tops the honours list.

But what about the kids?

All of this talk about what it means for the adults in the classroom deflects from the impetus behind it all: the students. So what did the Washington reforms do for public school kids?

Between 2007 and 2015, the number of 10 year olds who could do maths at their grade level rose from 49% to 69%. The numbers in reading ability rose from 39% to 56%. For years, DC parents had been removing their children from the public school system and the city’s charter schools were there to provide an escape hatch. The reverse is true now: the public school system is experiencing unprecedented growth.

Critics will quickly point out that there are many other factors that could explain the positive results. For example, the changes could easily be products of concurrent initiatives implemented to improve student outcomes.

Luckily, independent researchers looked at what happened in the classroom under Washington DC’s performance pay system, named IMPACT.

Three years after its introduction, an empirical evaluation found that effective teachers who stood to gain a permanent financial bonus the following year if they improved were indeed more likely to do so. The researchers demonstrated that the dismissal threat for ineffective teachers likely resulted in voluntary resignations and that those remaining improved their performance the following year. They found that 30% of teachers who were rated minimally effective voluntarily left – more than double the turnover of more effective teachers.

Most crucially, a 2016 analysis of the effect of teacher turnover on student outcomes showed that poorly performing teachers were generally replaced by those who improved student achievement.

Should New Zealand teachers worry?

Unfortunately much of what was wrong with Washington’s old appraisal system remains one of the biggest problems in New Zealand education. Before 2009 their system was a tick-box exercise: mainly used to re-endorse teacher registration and then placing teachers into a binary “satisfactory or not satisfactory” box. At the time, only 12% of the city’s 13-year olds could read at grade level while more than 95% of teachers rated positively.

The NZ Ministry of Education’s key indicators of school success are that 85% of primary school students are ‘at’ or ‘above’ National Standards and 85% of all 18-year olds have an NCEA Level 2 or similar. The danger here, were a performance-pay scheme to be introduced, is that teachers with challenging cohorts could be unfairly penalised for not getting their students over these national targets.

The DC approach likely worked because it relied on a number of performance indicators and was sensitive to the differences in the challenges faced by teachers in different classrooms. And crucially, the framework made it possible for teachers and school leaders to better identify areas of strengths and weaknesses, thus forming a basis for tailored professional development.

Meanwhile in New Zealand, a quarter of school leavers in 2015 left without a NCEA Level 2. The scandal is that we don’t even know how many teachers here are underperforming. Surely parents would want to know, and high quality teachers shouldn’t fear that. But New Zealand’s first task should be to define what constitutes teaching quality in the first place. The Initiative’s forthcoming report will recommend a starting point.

Martine Udahemuka is a Research Fellow at The New Zealand Initiative.

We welcome submissions from writers, on this or other topics. Submit your column at info@thespinoff.co.nz.


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