Five Reasons Why Performance Pay for Teachers is Dangerous Territory

The New Zealand Initiative’s new report calls for performance pay for teachers. It is an alluring concept, and one that intuitively appeals, after all we can all agree that good performers should be rewarded for their effort. However, when it comes to teaching that idea falls down on a detailed examination. Here’s 5 reasons why.

1. School competition has failed. Why would teachers competing work? 

The first point to note is that our current model of asking schools to compete has failed. This was the idea of Tomorrow’s Schools; that schools would compete with each other for students in order to improve performance. As we saw in Gareth’s story about Putaruru yesterday this model, combined with economic upheaval, has failed. It resulted in white flight from the local school to the school where the other rich kids go. This left the poor kids – predominantly Maori and Pasifika – ghettoised in the lower decile schools. Educator Bali Haque calls this division ‘educational apartheid’.

It’s seductive to think these high decile schools are ‘succeeding’ because they get good test results, but there is actually no evidence that these kids do better than they would have at the local school. However, there is evidence that by abandoning those lower decile schools they have made the going tougher for those left behind. In other words, Tomorrow’s Schools has increased inequality, and as a result has reduced the performance of our school system overall.

2. Cooperation not competition

Much like Tomorrow’s Schools pitted schools against each other and destroyed cooperation between schools, performance pay would risk doing the same to teachers. Currently teachers are mentored by each other, and share ideas and techniques on how to reach out to particular students. Why would they do that if they were competing with each other for a performance bonus?

3. How do you spot a good teacher?

What is the criteria for picking a star teacher? The NZ Initiative is suggesting a number of possible criteria and some of them look reasonable. However, as soon as these get tied to increased salary, these criteria need to be watertight.

The main problem is around using test results. These are patently unfair, as we discussed in 1 above – so much of a child’s results depend on their background rather than what the teacher has done. Some countries have put in place ‘added value’ testing to compensate for this; children are tested at the beginning and end of every year to see what the teacher has added. This is better, but is a lot more expensive and time consuming, and the results still seem to be pretty variable; a teacher might be a star one year and a dud the next.

4. High stakes testing distorts behaviour

The risk of testing is the same as all other aspects of introducing competition into the education system. Once you have set metrics for performance, and put a reward in place, teachers will change their behaviour to get that reward. The question is will that change in behaviour help or hinder the actual goal of improving education?

High stakes tests by their nature need to be objective, which means that they tend to test ‘surface knowledge’ rather than more complex ‘thinking’ or ‘soft’ skills. In other words, questions need to have a right and wrong answer. Trouble is that the world usually isn’t that simple, so teachers end up teaching kids stuff that isn’t very useful.

If test results make up a major part of the performance criteria you will get teachers teaching to the test, even cheating to boost their students’ performance. Both of these issues have been a problem in the jurisdictions they looked at in this report. The net result is that high stakes testing doesn’t improve anyone’s education, but it sure does make the results look better!

5. International best practice

The irony of the NZ Initiative’s report is that it is called ‘Fair and Frank; Global Insights for Managing School Performance’. However, this ‘global’ survey only looked at the UK and US systems, both of which are only fair to middling in terms of educational performance. Both these systems do make heavy use of the failed competitive model to improve performance however. So it seems that the NZ Initiative knew what kind of answer they were after. 

If they looked more broadly – which they have in previous reports on teacher pay – they would have looked at countries like Finland, which has a very successful education system. Finland does not assess teacher performance. They have made a deliberate decision to do what works – they ensure all their teachers are highly qualified and then let them get on and teach. In other words they make sure all their teachers are stars before they even enter the classroom. It is pretty simple actually, and it works. If we are going to pay teachers more, let’s demand more from them in terms of teaching qualification.



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