How to measure a teacher



'Teacher's pay' by Chris JohnstonOne of the teaching philosophies that currently prevail is the idea of differentiation. It recognises that children do not enter the classroom a blank slate, but bring with them a wide range of knowledge, skills, interests and experiences.

The idea that any group of individuals can be intelligent in different ways — and thus have varying learning modes — is a positive move away from the 'one size-fits all' approach that has alienated generations of students.

Teachers are thus expected to modify work in order to meet the needs of each student. This may mean advanced work for highly capable students and simplified tasks for those who struggle.

Unfortunately, such differentiation has not applied to teachers themselves. The truth is, there is also a wide range of knowledge, skills, interests and experiences within the profession. Any good principal could quickly tell apart the bright sparks from the lacklustre layabouts. But at present, said principal cannot reward those who perform well while providing explicit support structures for others.

This has led to artificial differentiation, calculated in years of teaching experience. We assume that the longer a teacher stays in the classroom, the better they become at their craft, and so the more they get paid.

For the most part, it is true that seasoned teachers are more effective. Longevity can only mean that they kept trying new tricks and got better at old ones.

However, just as we no longer assume that all students always learn in a similar fashion, we cannot assume all teachers are equal. This is precisely how mediocrity sets in, when there is neither reward for being excellent, nor consequence for not trying.

In this light, the Federal Government's plan to include performance pay for teachers in the coming Budget deserves some kudos. From 2014 to 2018, one in ten primary and secondary teachers will be entitled to extra pay as acknowledgement of their performance. Such bonuses would signal that mediocrity has no place in the teaching culture. Our young people absolutely deserve better.

Regrettably, a merit scheme also signals a number of other things that may be counter-productive to meaningful education. The proposed teacher evaluation takes into consideration student performance data, classroom observations, parent feedback and professional qualifications.

Such criteria will be predisposed towards academically-inclined and motivated students, engaged and orderly classes, parents who are ambitious about their children's education and committed to it, and schools with the time and money to allow teachers to undertake further training and development.

Where do teachers in disadvantaged suburbs fit into this picture? Or those who voluntarily teach in remote regions?

The fact that NAPLAN data forms the 'hard' evidence in assessing teacher merit is also troubling. Summative tests, by nature, lend primacy to what we remember at the time of testing. Our conception of student achievement and teacher effectiveness cannot be so narrow.

By relying on NAPLAN data, we are limiting our definition of an effective teacher to a set of time-bound, context-free numbers. This damages the profession and is a disservice to students.

High-stakes testing does not improve teaching practice on the whole, because it deadens pedagogy. You can imagine teachers in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 favouring practice tests and drills in the lead-up to NAPLAN — activities that are often disengaging and reinforce a sense of failure in those who already struggle. This is not how our places of learning ought to be.

The real difficulty with teacher merit schemes, as opposed to bonuses in other industries, is that teacher effectiveness is a lot more complex than whatever snapshot we can take of students while they are at school, whether in class, during a test, or through conversation with parents.

In order to find the algorithm for rewarding effective teachers, we first need to agree on what teachers are actually there for, and what they're not. If schools are merely factories that churn young people out into the workforce, then maybe we merely do a headcount of year 12 graduates.

But if teachers are there in order to facilitate the development of future citizens — not just literate and numerate individuals, but critical thinkers, socially just actors, and innovative creators — then perhaps there is no real way to measure their effectiveness while their students are still at school. Perhaps, in the end, our alumni are actually best placed to nominate our best teachers.

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a writer and former state school teacher. She blogs at 

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, federal budget, performance pay, teachers, education


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Existing comments

Has the research that found that extrinsic motivators such as cash bonuses extinguish intrinsic motivation been discredited? The cash will be nice for those who get it, and the recognition will be even better, but I wonder about the administration of the scheme. Aren't school administrators such as principals and their deputies and assistants already very busy? Didn't they find that this scheme didn't work in the US? How come we take on the things that other countries find ineffective?
Anne | 09 May 2011

As a former secondary teacher and teacher educator, I agree with Fatima's concerns. (In Grattan Institute Ben Jensen's study teachers are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with 'appraisal' simply to meet bureaucratic ends). There must be some recognition of the difficulties in teaching disadvantaged and often unmotivated students. In addition, as she observes, resources available to the teacher in remote regions are fewer than those in capital cities.I think that teachers must demand, and support the AEU, in demanding that criteria reflect the complexity of teaching/learning situations in all contexts.
Bill Hampel | 09 May 2011

Spot on Fatima! Much of what you write here is recognised as reality by this ‘chalkie’ of many years classroom teaching in several schools. You ask the key questions. What makes the ‘best’ teachers? Who shall decide who they are? Certainly not principals alone. Like pupils and teachers too, principals also vary in abilities, possessing their own blind spots as to best teacher performance .And the job of being a principal is tough enough without laying this level of potentially acrimonious bonus decision making upon them. You suggest alumni who later as adults can recognise the true worth or otherwise of the teachers they had as children. A fair comment. But the financial reward comes too late. Teachers need money now, not later, to pay their mortgages, feed their families, and survive in an increasingly financially demanding world. My suggestion, if it considered wise to introduce bonuses for the ‘best’ teachers, is to let teachers in their own schools be the judge. We all know from working alongside our colleagues who are ‘the right stuff’, and who merits a bit more pay than some others.
Brian | 09 May 2011

Have Gillard's awards anything to do with good teaching? Ever the pragmatist, her real aim may be to produce more achieving students for the professional workforce. There has long been a need for disadvantaged students to receive appropriate and good teaching which captivates the students rather than alienating them.
Maureen Strazzari | 09 May 2011

Great work Fatima! Couldn't agree more, at the end of the day pedagogy is and has been changed.. And the students will be worse off because of it.
Charles Myers | 09 May 2011

If my student does well in the NAPLAN tests, is it because of me or because of her previous teachers? Is it because of me or because of her parents at home who encourage her to read and explore the world around her? The whole idea of applying an industrial quality checking model to teaching is ridiculous.
Erik H | 09 May 2011

Dear God! What rubbish this bonus payment is for teachers. "Such bonuses would signal that mediocrity has no place in the teaching culture." Our schools are built on mediocrity, and strive hard not to exceed that hard to maintain level. What ever happened to the role of 'manager' in schools? Why are there no questions about the poor level of management in schools? Why do commentators assume always that the principal needs more powers- they have failed to manage, hence the poor standards in schools, so would more power make any improvement? Cameron Dick, minister for Ed Qld, measures state schools by the number of students suspended or expelled! Really! What utter rot we suffer from our politicians. It is well past time to have our schools tipped upside down, hosed out, rebuilt and re-tasked altogether. Teachers should be paid, like anyone else, for the job they take on, according to the position description, and managed whilst employed. The failure of school principals to 'manage' speaks volumes about the standard, mediocre to say the least, of school principals. The constant fiddling by politicians to secure votes from education is appalling.
Harry Wilson | 09 May 2011

In the US associating bonuses for teachers with Naplan-like tests has pushed teachers over the edge into all out cheating, see the New York Times article in 2010 - So far in Australia they have just gone to ridiculous lengths to teach to the test in some schools (daily practise test for up to 3 months prior to the test in my daughter's school). I have to wonder what important education my daughter missed out on while the teachers were obsessing over Naplan. And that was before they decided to link performance to bonuses. Maybe they should be asking the parents about who the good teachers are!
Beth | 09 May 2011

Good article! I wonder, though ho this bonus will adress the more pressing issues in schools. I am young enough to remeber as a student what it felt like trying to learn in a school that governments constantly kept cutting the budget of. I wonder if teaching standards would rise in line with personal pride and integrity. This could easily be achived by lowering class sises, increasing teacher authority and resources, and getting a pest exterminator - or better yet a building contractor. I grew up in a school that was dilapidated. Sometimes there were more students than chairs. I know there were definatly more cockroaches. Our teacher would have 30 of us for 50 mins - a bit less than 5 min. each dedicated time. Most of it was spent trying to contain the demon child and calm down the back-chatting clowns in the back row, who knew the limits of the teachers feeble authority and exploited it for all it's worth.

It doesn't take a genius to work out that detentions are a burden on the techer as well as the student. How does a bonus for good teachers do anything for this? I've graduated now, but I also have a ballot paper and a thirst for revenge. Dance Julia, dance. Put your cash somewhere useful, or at least meaningful.
Garry | 09 May 2011

It's funny but I'm one of those teachers, and they are the majority from where I come from, who find teaching a creative outlet and therefore give 100 per cent because its an enjoyable endeavour. If however, I feel I am being "watched, judged and assessed" more than I already am, it hampers rather than inspires me to "perform". So I don't feel at all motivated by this new "performance pay" scheme. It just make me want to find a new outlet for my creativty.

from top teacher from a top school.
Valery | 09 May 2011

A+ The top mark.
I remember when Performance Pay was introduced into the Australian Public Service in the 1980s by Treasurer Paul Keating.
It was a subterfuge to grant public servants a pay rise without appearing to give them a pay rise.
It required managers to draw up a Performance Agreement with each individual staff member which set certain Performance Indicators/Standards to be met. Here is a hypothetical standard/indicator: Temporary Entry Visas to be issued within 72 hours. This standard could be met at 5 levels:
A. All visas issued within 72 hrs.
B. 75% of visas
C. 60%
D. 50%
E. less than 50%
If a clerk obtained all As over the entire range of Performance Indicators she got the full bonus.
If 75-99% As, she got half a bonus
If 60-74% As, she got a third bonus
If 50-59%, she got nothing
If less than 50% she got counselling.
Since Managers knew the performance of their staff was a reflection on their management ability they drew up Performance Pay Agreements that they assessed their staff could reach according to their individual competencies. Performance therefore changed very little.
Uncle Pat | 09 May 2011

We once had inspectors in our schools who were there to help as well as evaluate teachers. Rather than do a lot of fancy paperwork and juggle statistics why not bring them back. Surely the personal approach is better than more paperwork and the bureaucrats needed to evaluate it.
Jim Williams | 09 May 2011

If you want to rank teachers, the best people to ask are their students. For some, teaching was only their second choice, taken up because they didn't get a high enough score to study the subject that was the first choice. Then there are those who are natural teachers, with the gift of being able to communicate easily and to inspire their students to want to learn.
I can still recall today those teachers I had who possessed that gift, and thank God for the inspiration they gave me. Sadly, I can count them on one hand.

Then there were those that the students labelled as "mental" or "old bat", and I look
back today and think "we were right - some of
them were barking".

Just ask the kids - you'll get the most honest answers.
Carolyn White | 12 May 2011

As an ex chalkie I once did a teaching stint in the UK. Head Teacher was a 'jerk' who was more interested in climbing the greasey pole than running the school.What made it was was the learnig or Key Stages" which affected all years at Secondary level in England and of course affected the 'ranking' of the school.

I found that I was required to basically teach to the test and hated it! Some schools actually 'failed' and the impact on staff and students was awful to witness!
Teachers were flat out and often 'burnt out! No wonder they were and still are recruiting naive teachers from the colonies.

Measuring teacher performance...poppycock!
Most Heads are far too busy 'running ' the school, making sure there are enough 'bums on seats' to warrent their future. From mine and other teacher's experiences, neither parents or students have the professional skills to judge teachers and nor should they. I would not dare to judge my accountant or other professional outside my field; I am sure they could not assess my perfomance.
A good article Fatima; I note you are a former teacher...
Gavin | 12 May 2011

I think a great 'bonus' for good teachers is to give them an assistant for 1 day a week to do all the paper work for them. I am a music specialist in a primary school. The amount of paper work required to track results for, and assess 600 + students would make your head spin. Quite seriously, if I assessed as meticulously as Qld Ed. required, there would be no time for teaching. Somewhere there has to be enough 'oxygen' for teachers to be trusted to teach and to make professional judgements. Teachers are now being obsessively watched, evaluated, observed, criticised. It makes it hard to enjoy what you do! We now have to detail planning to such an extent that there is very little room for 'following a lead' or responding to students ideas and enquiries. All this monitoring doesn't make for better teachers, it makes good teachers edgy and defensive.... and wastes probably 40% of the time they could use developing great lessons. I put great effort into meeting the 'letter of the law' with regard to monitoring, but this does not make me a good teacher. Bonuses seem to be offered to those who are the best 'record keepers'.
Miss Music | 13 May 2011

First, I would say that performance pay for teachers makes about as much sense as paying a dentist based on the state of his patient's teeth. There are too many factors over which teachers have no control. Second, and far more concerning, schools are spending extraordinary amounts of time teaching students how to do NAPLAN at the expense of other areas of their education. We are creating a generation who will be very good at tests but I'm not sure that is a widely employable skill.
BRENT LAMMAS | 16 May 2011

It is extremely difficult to be an effective teacher in a struggling school with poor leadership. Such school exist across the spectrum - state, private, Catholic; I've experienced them al in my long career.

I've seen brilliant leadership in low SEL schools, and great outcomes for students. It's about value-adding, and the Naplan test can't illustrte that.

Another important factor is collaboration among teachers; this can raise the standard (and apply peer group pressure to perform) of the less effective teachers.

There is a venerable and extensive literature on the factors that enhance student outcomes, in other words, what makes an effective school - the focus on rewarding individual teachers does not seem to me to reflect it.
Maxine Barry | 19 May 2011