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.