This week, ACT have proposed bonus payments to ‘reward excellence’ in ‘top-performing’ teachers. The President of the Principals Federation slammed this idea. While it may seem natural for economists to link a person’s pay to job performance, education is less clear-cut.
Before delving into the nature of education and why performance-based rewards wouldn’t work in NZ, TOP challenges the ACT party to produce evidence to validate its policy ideas. We find it abhorrent that simplified ideologies of free-market efficiencies could drive education policy in New Zealand. The media, and Peter Williams in particular, would do well to delve deeper than sports-team analogies to understand this phenomenon.
Education should not be a political football; a place to tinker (or regulate) to score political points. Rather, education should comprise a highly qualified, trusted professional body of teachers, who are empowered to get on with the most important job in the nation – educating our most vulnerable citizens.
Why performance-based rewards wouldn’t work in NZ
We concede that performance pay initiatives seem to be working in developing regions such as Tanzania and rural India. But well-designed experimental trials in Nashville and New York City have not found positive impacts on student learning outcomes from the introduction of either school-based or individual teacher bonus pay.
So, why would bonus-pay schemes not work for teachers in New Zealand?
Firstly, we are developing whole children, not just cognitive brains. Salary incentives assume clearly defined outcomes, for example improvements in maths and reading. But teachers and schools have multidimensional goals for students. These may include academic achievement, citizenship, character development, and career preparation. There is no agreement on which goals are more important in education. And incentivising any one outcome can lead to unintended consequences. Certainly, measuring academic achievement, through the use of standardised testing, is not all that counts.
Secondly, teacher effort is not the only factor influencing child development. Salary incentives assume a tight link between teacher effort and student outcomes. Yet, factors both inside and outside school can affect a student’s ‘performance’, well-being and learning.
Thirdly, research is clear that many highly motivated teachers do not always have the individual capacity to improve their own teaching practice. Merit pay systems assume that teachers know how to improve and are simply unmotivated to do so. Reflections of teaching practice are much more complex. A good example is the lack of cultural responsiveness and unconscious bias in mainstream schooling.
Fourthly, teaching is a collaborative profession, not a competitive one. Imposing competitive rewards-based payment schemes would annihilate the collaborative education environment that many are striving to achieve.
The Nature of Education
Educationally, the best results come from intrinsically motivated staff and students. When they understand the purpose of education, when their internalised goals align with those of their school, staff and students perform better, feel well, and have positive attitudes. Teacher evaluations and national exams become obsolete when the profession is highly qualified, well paid and trusted. Such is the case in Finland, a clear leader in PISA test scores.
Education systems perform best when accountability pressure is reduced. When teachers are engaged in coaching and mentoring-style professional development, when diversity within communities is celebrated, when strong curriculum advice is offered, teaching and learning flourishes.
Teaching and learning is more about relationships and connections than regulation and compliance. We’re organic, biological beings who develop through feedback from our social worlds. Trusting, reciprocal relationships help us develop our sense of identity, social belonging and wellbeing. Our ability to communicate, represent, explore, contribute, collaborate and engage in purposeful activity, within these relationships, is important for developing our feelings of success as learners.
Our current learners will face a rapidly changing world requiring skills we don’t yet know, disruptions we haven’t yet seen, and demands we can’t imagine now. Learners will need to be able to adapt, and educators will need to develop ways to support life-long learning. Creating systems to support, enable, and empower, rather than regulate, hinder and destroy, a love of learning is paramount to education’s success.
What type of evidence should the media give voice to?
Therefore, we need to implement the findings of the Tomorrow’s Schools Review. This review held robust conversations about the strengths and challenges of New Zealand’s schooling system in over 200 meetings with stakeholders throughout the country. These stakeholders included students, parents, school trustees, principals/tumuaki, teachers, support staff, education experts, iwi, education agencies, sector organisations, businesses, members of the LGBTQ+ community, youth justice and alternative education providers, tertiary providers, universities, Māori, Pacific, and other ethnic communities, and people living with disability and learning support needs. This 100+ page report has plenty of recommendations for the media to delve into, without giving voice to evidence-less policy ideas.
Of course, teachers should be paid more, given the importance of their role in our society. If we’re going to have any kind of pay discrepancy, let’s look beyond simplistic notions of teacher ‘excellence’ and student academic achievement, and (re)consider teacher knowledge and skill, professional evaluation, and market incentives, such as teachers working in difficult-to-serve schools or in difficult-to-staff positions.
TOP urges ACT to think deeper or remain silent. There are enough debates in education without giving voice to random left-field, or indeed right-wing, sensationalist, political-point-scoring ideas.