Pay for performance

Having earnestly stated that this blog will steer clear of political dog fights I have decided that the first area I want to cover is the highly controversial issue of performance pay for teachers.

Hang in there. Stay with me. I can do this. There is a fundamental, non-political principle that I want to focus on, I just need to set it up with some broad, sweeping but hopefully valid generalisations first.

I think what is meant by ‘performance pay’ would be commonly understood by most people but here’s my brief definition to set the scene.

Performance pay wishes to financially reward hard working, inspirational and effective teachers over and above the standard rates of pay for the measurable contribution they make to student outcomes.

It is a theory beloved of policy makers who feel it would incentivize the workforce and lead to an improvement in scholastic achievement. It is equally despised by teachers, teacher unions, and anyone else who has a practical experience of what happens within a classroom, for its inherent inequality and narrow terms of reference.

As for other stakeholders in the industry, principals usually go into damage control mode when the topic comes up because they really weren’t looking for another fight that day, parents are either for or against based on their individual political leanings, and students – well no-one’s ever asked them but what would they know…right?

The idea is to reward teachers for quality in their performance yet most models aim to reward the teacher based on the performance of someone else – specifically the academic achievement of someone else- the student.

It is a concept that is highly divisive, re-emerges regularly, and completely misses the point.

So what is the point?

Well (and here finally is my deep fundamental issue) I think the point is that there is very little clarity over what society considers to be truly valuable in education. Everyone agrees that grades matter but there’s a hung jury on whether that’s all that matters or indeed if teachers are the single biggest influence on good grades. Therefore judging anyone’s performance as a teacher is bound to be subjective.

Consider, for example, the teachers you have known. Some of these teachers improve students’ capacity in their field of study and this is unquestionably meritorious. The performance pay advocates recognize them and (superficially at least) data exists to justify this.

But what about those teachers who are decidedly unremarkable in their classroom teaching but whose impact on students in another area of school life in nothing short of awesome? Do you know a teacher whose passion for sport or the arts and their commitment to coaching and promoting this within their school has born great success? Do you recall a wonderful/loving/engaging/peacemaking teacher who was fair and inclusive to all in their class? I’ll bet you do. And I’ll bet you are grateful they were there. In fact I bet we all appreciate their contributions are valuable to school communities. But is it a key performance indicator and how much value does it have in comparison to test scores?

In truth discussions of what matters in education are actually quite commonplace. I think most of us are happy to kick the topic about a bit amongst friends and relatives while enjoying an open fire, glass of wine, or a fine selection of cheeses. They frequently act as platitudes at the start of dissertations, rationales, mission statements etc and far less frequently as the tricky abstract concept that has been given a little more shape and formulation by the document’s conclusion. Typically a statement of what’s important in education is a rhetorical device and as such is a means rather then an end.

However, in this instance, we are talking about justifications for pretty significant salary increases and it’s not a trivial matter.

If any real progress is to be made here it strikes me that this issue requires consensus first. To what extent is the extraordinary contribution made by some teachers in some area of school life worth rewarding? Perhaps we only reward that rare breed that demonstrably perform at a high level in all aspects of school. Then again, perhaps reward should go to school staff who greatly enhance the experience of students, and by extension the prestige of the school, in any of a variety of endeavours.

Bottom line is this: work out what is meant by ‘performance’ and then decide what it’s worth.

5 thoughts on “Pay for performance

  1. In the international language schools we tend to reward teachers based on their experience and adaptability and not really focus on their results which in my opinion are not necessarily correlated.
    Results are so hard to quantify as people present themselves with various learning needs, abilities and difficulties. I like the thought about contribution being more significant than perhaps black and white grades.

  2. Great article Sterling. I think you clearly articulate 2 issues that often occur whenever someone uses the phrase “pay for performance” that I have seen in many other fields as well as teaching. The most obvious one is the tendency to warp the desired outcome that is our measure of performance to fit other objectives that should be irrelevant. In the case of teachers that alternate objective is obviously political expediency. The talking point of pay for performance may get some votes, but the timeframe of the true outcome is way too long term to fit the political cycle. The true objective being improving the long term options available to a child can only be seen once the child has reached their adult potential, and there is no control possible to gauge what would have happened without the teachers involvement, or to determine which of the many teachers had what percentage of the effect.

    So the noble ideal (sic) of pay for performance falls down as the outcome is impossible to determine or attribute, but the potential political gain is too attractive to give up. So we end up with proxy measures that are at best imprecise, and at worst destructive to the outcome, like measuring performance on grades or tertiary outcomes (which are corrupted by student and parent choices), or by standardised testing results which is just infuriatingly wrong headed (my own personal opinion of course).

    I want to add something to this though that from my perspective makes the whole thing even worse. I every study conducted (and there aren’t many) on using money as a motivator for performance show that there is actually an inverse link, that is that pay for performance is likely to reduce performance in any task that involves even the most moderate amount of subjectivity. The thought that paying people for performance increases that performance is based on taking something that can work on tasks where the outcome can be easily measured, I.e. how many physical items you can produce in a day, and using faulty “common sense” to extend this theory to tasks that have a more complex or subjective outcome.

    So pay for performance for teachers is impossible to measure accurately, the proxy measures are wrong or destructive, and the whole idea is counterproductive. Seems like a good idea to me.

    BTW, if you want to know more about what I mean on the whole pay for performance thing being wrong, this is a good primer –

    Dan Pink does a good job of summarising the research (look at the biblio for chapter 2 of his book drive. Also look at the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

  3. About 8 years ago I was going to a school that had monetary incentives for the teachers dependent on if their whole class passed the final exam. If a student was failing the teacher would roll them back into an easier class instead of giving them a chance to improve and they would teach us in accordance to what the test tested an not on anything outside of the test, which guaranteed us a non-rounded education. I think that basing these monetary incentives on student performance is a bad idea because teachers can still be bad teachers even though their students are getting good grades. They shouldn’t be rewarded for that type of behavior, and I think that adding money into the equation increases the likelihood of that type of behavior. I know that there are a lot of great teachers out there, I have had a few, and these bad teachers are making it harder to reward those great teachers.

    • I think your comment is a really valuable insight Danielle. Thanks for taking the time to write. Having had a look at you own blog it seems to me that you haven’t let the experience slow you down though and that is wonderful to see. The only observation I’d make is that I believe the fault lies at the heart of the education policy you describe which clearly rewards bad teaching and learning practice. It sounds like none of the teachers at that school found the bonus system much of a moral dillema so I wont try to defend them too much. I do wonder though if they would be better – even ‘good’ in a different system.

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