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SocietyMay 28, 2019

Performance related pay for teachers is a terrible idea

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Because yet another layer of bureaucracy is just what education needs right now. Yeah right, says Jai Breitnauer.

Whenever the issue of teacher pay comes up – which is quite a lot at the moment as New Zealand prepares for Wednesday’s massive strike action – there is always someone who says, ‘what about performance related pay?’ I decided to do some research, speak to a few people including supporters of the idea, teachers themselves, and NZEI, and find out if it had any type of legs at all. My conclusion? No, it doesn’t. Here’s why.

Good teaching isn’t measurable

David Seymour of ACT tabled the idea of a ‘Good Teacher Grant’ not long ago, promising just under $1m would be set aside to allow principals to pay their best teachers more. Seymour, who also wanted teachers to ditch the unions, said “the best teachers earn the same as the worst”. What I wanted to know was, how was he measuring that? Because the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers is very subjective. No one can tell me, definitively, what a good teacher actually is – because what makes a good teacher isn’t something that is measurable. In fact, the very act of trying to measure good teaching can result in poor teaching.

“There is already so much pressure to teach in a way that optimises ‘data’ rather than what is best for the whole child,” said one teacher I spoke to anonymously. “What would they measure? Who would decide? Currently parents and students have no say in teacher appraisals even though they are the ones most affected.”

She notes that there is a lot of research that shows relationships are the biggest factor in positive student learning and wellbeing, “but how on earth could that be assessed in a way that is fair and consistent?” Relationships are quite personal after all, and rely on more than just one personality to work well.

One keyboard warrior I got into a debate with on Facebook suggested that if you were a good teacher you would not be worried about performance related pay because your students’ results would show your abilities leading a classroom. This, of course, is ridiculous. Children all learn at different rates, and teaching should focus on supporting the child to their own version of success, not pushing them to get a score on a maths test that some government box-ticker reckons is appropriate for their age.

This becomes particularly pertinent when talking about children with disability and additional needs, the most vulnerable children in our society, who need a teaching approach that helps develop unmeasurable skills like social interaction, so they can experience those unmeasurable feelings that make life worthwhile, like connection and belonging. Teaching is, at the core of it, a caring profession – you wouldn’t base a nurse’s pay on how quickly he could administer IV medication, you want him to have the time and flexibility to make sure the patients are well cared for. Teachers are nurturing our children in the same way.

Striking teachers wait for a bus to take them to a rally on August 15, 2018 in Auckland. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

One size does not fit all

Homogenising the education system will isolate many students and prevent them achieving the success they’re capable of. We are already hearing complaints that the New Zealand educational system ‘teaches to the middle’, because teachers are time and resource poor. We need a system that caters to the individual, not one that streamlines processes to make it easier for the assessor to process outcomes. Performance related pay would require a level of bureaucracy that can only be managed in a ‘one size fits all’ style of education system. A system we already know doesn’t work.

“Critical thinking by teachers is already discouraged in many schools in my experience,” a primary school teacher leaving the profession told me. “Performance pay would be a very effective way to stifle dissent or challenge to the existing system by teachers.”

So, I guess parents need to ask themselves, do they want to receive a monthly balance sheet where their child is statistically pitched against their anonymous peers in a top down system with no scope for moderation from within? Or do we want switched on, politically astute teachers who have a system of recognising best practice for their students and the flexibility to apply it in a way that will lead to good outcomes? I know quite clearly where I stand on that one.

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Collaboration is the key to success

This is absolutely the most important issue when it comes to the limited value of performance related pay. Teachers in New Zealand want to work together for a better educational experience for their children, not be pitched against each other in a fight to the death for solvency.

“There’s been no research that has supported the fact that performance related pay makes a positive difference to children’s learning, which is compelling in itself,” says NZEI president Lynda Stuart, also a school principal. “Teaching is much better when we can all collaborate professionally, when we can work through issues that make a difference for children. You can’t collaborate if you’re in competition.”

Lynda says teachers need time to observe other teachers, to see good practice in action – and to then have a chance to reflect and discuss critically to move their own teaching practice forward. This, she says, isn’t workable with the small number of non-contact hours available right now. Mentorship and strong professional development opportunities would also be a great asset, she says – and not possible in an environment where teachers are pitted against each other.

Ultimately, she says, if teaching was a well-paid, well-respected profession, then concerns about ‘bad teachers’ would be redundant.

“This is about teaching being seen as a high-status profession, so we can choose the best quality candidates and support them to keep them,” says Lynda. “People have lots of choices when they leave school/university. For teaching to be attractive to graduates we need good remuneration, sustainable workload, good support for students with learning needs and opportunities for career growth. It’s a profession. That aspect of teaching needs to be enhanced.”

Performance related pay would further demoralise and disenfranchise a group of professionals who have been tasked with one of the most important jobs in the country – in exchange for the least pay and respect. It would add another level of expensive bureaucracy that would erode both the finances of schools and the time of staff, removing them even further from the hands-on business of holistic, effective teaching. Ultimately, it would actually stand in the way of the collaborative, supportive and caring approach that, if properly funded, could make Aotearoa’s education system world class.

Performance related pay is an idea that places blame at the feet of an overworked, underpaid and poorly supported workforce. Let’s put this idea to bed now. Let’s listen to what the teaching community are saying on Wednesday. And let’s give them what they need. He aha te mea nui o te ao. He taangata, he taangata, he taangata.

Keep going!