Teachers are wrong about performance pay


Classroom blackboardThe Victorian Government plans to introduce performance pay for teachers. The teachers' union has objected to this proposal on the grounds that teachers are special. The union is right to object, but its argument is faulty. Performance pay is not wrong for teachers because they are special, but because it is wrong for everybody.

The case for performance pay rests on the assumption that work is a commodity. It is the possession of the worker, and can be broken into its component parts and traded accordingly. The more marketable we make our work by meeting KPIs and the like, the greater the financial return we can negotiate. The theory is that financial incentives of this kind will develop more profitable and productive enterprises.

This view is destructive because it focuses on a single aspect of work. Work involves a complex series of human relationships that far transcend the payment by employer to employee for something possessed by the latter.

In working relationships people engage other persons to join them and to act with them in particular ways. The relationship implies commitments by both sides. It is expected that persons employed by an enterprise will give themselves to the persons who employ them, to the enterprise itself, and to the people whom it serves.

The relationship also implies that employers will welcome and have a care for those whom they employ and make them participants in their enterprise. The long-term health of the organisation itself will depend on the quality of all these complex sets of relationships.

In this understanding of work, the relationship between employer and employee is not that between a buyer and the seller of a commodity. It is between a person who offers a service and another who accepts that service and rewards the giver. This relationship has a contractual aspect, but it also needs to be described in terms of mutual gift. Those employed give themselves fully within the relationships involved in their work. Employers thank employees for their work through the gift of a wage.

The concept of performance pay at best obscures the quality of relationships and the element of gift involved in work. At worst it treats work as a commodity that can be quantified and traded. To the extent that performance pay comes to be seen as natural, it will make irrelevant good working relationships, turn workers into competitors who vie to sell their skills and polish their KPIs, and minimise loyalty and responsibility both to the community and to the wider society through the enterprise.

It naturally leads to short-term employment, and corrodes the mutual loyalties of workers and management, so leading inevitably to the loss of stored wisdom in the enterprise.

These consequences will be particularly harmful in educational, health and welfare organisations that work directly with people. Their effectiveness depends on the generosity of their workers in forming, encouraging and sustaining a gossamer web of relationships that are often intangible and involve self-effacement.

Workers strongly committed generally to these enterprises, and concretely to those whom it serves, will be insulted and betrayed by the suggestion that more money might inspire them to work harder, or by temptations to work harder in ways that are personally unsustainable for financial profit.

It is significant that performance pay is rife in financial businesses like banking and accounting, and has so generated support in business schools and consultancy firms that conduct surveys for government. Its effectiveness for productivity has become part of conventional wisdom.

It should give pause that it was precisely the breach of trust in relationships in the financial industry and the loss of wisdom in banking institutions that created the financial crisis. Pay for performance appears to have worked very efficiently in producing catastrophe.

I do not wish to deny the complexity facing the Victorian Government. It needs a policy that will attract good teachers who have a good understanding of their disciplines and skills, who can teach them well, and can interest and attract young people to realise their possibilities at all levels. These are high goals that require high commitment as well as high gifts. People serving the community so generously should be well remunerated.

But there are many calls on the public purse. As in all other areas, too, some teachers will surely have given up on high goals and do only what is necessary to keep their job.

These are realities. But at best the introduction of performance pay would be an irrelevance. No doubt many people with strong values will survive it, as they do other forms of idiocy. At worst the ideology that inspires it will fracture the delicate network of relationships that links teachers, students, schools and the larger community, and make it natural to view education as a commodity. That would be a tragedy for all of us. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. Images courtesy Jesuit Refugee Service. 


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, education, Ballieu Government



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Existing comments

The one problem with teaching as a profession, can be, not always, that they have very little experience outside of schools. All their life has been in education. To reward teachers based on performance raises more problems than could ever be imagined. How do you evaluate teacher performance? Is it NAPLAN results? Is it based on retention rates at school? How about the delivery of stimulating curriculum? And what about the demographic? Let alone appalling behaviour in classrooms? And is it deemed harder to teach secondary students than primary students? There is no level playing field. Teachers all devote lives to education. Remunerate them ALL more and we may get the profession upgraded and attract more into an honourable career that carries with it the most enormous responsibiiity of all - our nation's future!
Jane | 14 June 2012

Performance pay is not wrong for teachers because they are special, but because it is wrong for everybody’. Well said, Fr Andrew. Historically there was a time when some teachers were ‘paid by results’ and that was an abject failure too. Teaching solely for success in the NAPLAN tests may well be heading in that same direction. The complex working relationship between teacher and pupil , akin to that of priest and parishioner to take an extreme example, cannot be measured and rewarded purely in terms of commodity and cost. And even if it could, who then will do the measuring ?
Brian | 14 June 2012

Jane is wrong many teachers have done many things besides teaching and have a lot of world experience. I myself lived and travelled overseas for almost ten years prior to becoming a teacher. The whole problem with Teaching is that a massive number of teachers will retire in the next ten years, estimated to be 27,000 in Nsw alone. On top of this graduates many of whom did not excel at school themselves have a large drop out rate from the proffesion, almost 50% of new teachers are no longer in the proffesion after two years. This is all leading to a situation already realised in many other developing countries where there is not only a lack of teachers but a lack of good quality teachers. The short term vision of the state governments especially Queensland and the other educational systems catholic and independent will only exacerbate this problem in the future.
nathan kelly | 14 June 2012

Oh Lord! save us from the high minded rubbish of Andrew Hamilton SJ - "teachers are wrong about performance pay" - "the responsibility of teachers is to realise the potential of their students" everythig else falls into place once that is recognised But it is not even mentioned by Hamilton It was my guiding principle for 20 years of teaching - and brought me into sufficient conflict with so called educational administrators that I established a record for the longest serving teacher without a promotion - but with many students who gained confidence in their professional abilities and their record number of industry awards for excellence
frank hetherton | 14 June 2012

Andrew, if only life was so simple that everyone tried their best and to be their best, all the time and did not need either sticks or carrots to perform well! Unfortunately, in the real wold.... I would actually prefer a situation where teachers were all paid well across the board but perhaps with extra pay for special skills in short supply and for taking on extra responsibilities, . but then head teachers could fire those those that consistently under-perfom. But this is a heavily unionised workforce and the unions have real power to shelter the poor and mediocre and those that just do not try. So...incentives are the only way open...except that the unions oppose that too, wanting to pretend that every teacher is as good as the next one and everyone works and performs the same. Public schools have become centred on the teachers and not the students or their education...yet another part of the Australian ( or Greek!) disease called "entitlement". At least there did seem to be some sense of reality towards the end of your piece, Andrew, suggesting that the situation may just be bit more complex than you would like it to be.
Eugene | 14 June 2012

A curious little hotchpotch of employer/employee relationships from which one might even suggest that the relationships described would be justification for the elimination of Unions from the workplace. 'It is expected that persons employed by an enterprise [employees] will give themselves to te persons who employ them [employers], to the enterprise itself, and to the people whom it serves'. No place for the unions here! Social justice out the door?
john frawley | 14 June 2012

I'm sorry Jane. I have spent the last 40 years as a teacher. How does that preclude me from having lived? Why is that a hindrance to my being able to speak about life's experiences? I have married, I have children and grandchildren, I have applied for jobs, gone for interviews, negotiated salaries ... What does all this have to do with a comment about performance pay? Where I currently work, teachers go through a performance appraisal every year, measured against standards drawn largely from the Australian Teacher Standards, and are given a bonus at the end of the year. There is no criterion about student test results - it's all about what level of competency they achieve in their classroom, collaborating with their colleagues and the extra dimensions they bring to the school, the students and the community. It is not a perfect instrument but it's getting better with each iteration as teachers become familiar with its requirements.
ErikH | 14 June 2012

Yes, let's look at QANTAS shall we? Going broke but the 'performance' of its managers gets ever higher rewards. Government managers are on performance pays too but there is no visible improvement at the 'coal face' where staff deal with punters. Should cops get performance pays? I'm sure they could verbal lots of doubtful people to get the results the zillions demanded, but would you be one of their victims? As for politicians supporting performance pay - what a larf! Perhaps they need to lead by example and devise a performance matrix for their own black art?
janice wallace | 14 June 2012

Eugene, if there is any increase in the cry of 'entitlement' it comes from those who send their kids to private schools and seem to believe they have a God given right to demand ever more for their disadvantaged children. As for hopeless teachers getting the sack, there are systems in place now but senior managers decline to use them because of the work involved. The issue then though, is who will sack the time serving principals? There is always an assumption that principals are like gods, and can do no wrong, so should wield life-death power over their staff, but look again at a badly performing school and what responsibility is the principal taking for that situation?
Andy Fitzharry | 14 June 2012

Thanks for your comments, and particularly for spelling out the complexities and factors frustrating change in educational institutions. I do recognise those. My argument was not that by offering a right understanding of employment relationships and so excluding performance pay, I would solve all problems. I argued less ambitiously that problems will only be exacerbated if we adopt the commonly shared thin understanding of work, and so introduce performance pay. The latter is part of the problem, not of any good solution. In the imperfect world in which we live, of course, unions are important to help define the level of remuneration owed for different forms of service, people should be held accountable for serving as they promised, good teachers' contracts can be rewritten to include the special nature of the service they offer and gifts can be given (bonuses) for service over and above that promised. These and many other things are compatible with a full understanding of the human relationships involved in work. Making remuneration depend on performance is not compatible for the reasons I gave in the article.
Andy Hamilton | 14 June 2012

Who will measure how well i deliver advice to a student about a family breakdown or about how he/she finds it hard to relate to their peers and spends most of the school day feeling isolated or explaining to a student the importance of being responsible for their behaviour or submitting a task on time or being punctual or respectful or flexible or civil or just or well-presented or why it is important to persist toward the excellent as opposed to being happy with mediocrity or giving up a bus seat for a senior or considering the plight of others or reading the newspaper or turning their phone off and enjoying the silent space where facebook normally resides or being honest or acknowledging their own strengths or weaknesses or those of their peers or tuck their shirt in or mind how they talk or relate to one another in a public place or............punctuate a simple sentence.....whoops...heres my classroom......i'll try and sneak some curriculum in after i settle them down! Geez..I cant wait to get to HQ so i can affect some policy and make a real difference to the lives of these kids! Give me a break....STOP MAKING IT HARDER!
Scott | 14 June 2012

I am very surprised at Andrew's objection to performance pay for anybody and offended by his referral to it as "a form of idiocy "."Performance pay" is in itself a very sloppy term. When discussing remuneration in the business world more specific terms like bonus and commission are clarifying. During 15 years as a national sales manager in an academic publishing company I recruited and managed a group of highly professional people (on competitive salaries ) who not only accepted but enjoyed and even demanded the opportunity to earn an annual performance bonus .They saw it a a motivating challenge as well a a legitimate sharing in company profits when we all did well ! There were no instances of the shady tactics often followed by sales people on commission. That would have been counter productive to their work. As a former teacher I understand the difficulties of applying performance pay to that profession but I object to excluding it from All others
PATRICK WALSH | 15 June 2012

Just wondered about the notion of wage as a 'gift'??
J Rebeiro | 15 June 2012

I wholeheartedly agree with Andy's view on workplace conditions - especially the point that teachers are by no means the only "special" ones. But I seen such views as quaint and admit to becoming jaded. While the "profession" I'm working in has now been outsourced to the best bid, conditions have rapidly deteriorated and moral and workplace environment would be better at a sausage factory in Thailand. But with current finance conditions, one perseveres. Survival tactics range from cynicism, sucking up to bosses, manipulation, big-talking or, in my case, treading water and hoping for a break somewhere else.
AURELIUS | 16 June 2012

The biggest fallacy of all is this belief that performance pay must be measured by 'results'. Certainly Andy started his article in this place and pleasingly seems to have moderated his stance. Many organisations place equal or better emphasis on behaviours (i.e. relationships) when considering performance pay or bonuses. Many teachers want recognition for all the things they do for students beyond the results of 'academic' teaching as some have tried to articulate in these comments. Certainly a form of bonus/recognition/reward to distinguish those who go over and above with their students achieves this desire from teachers. Teachers who I raise this with argue that this is too hard to manage, and that teachers want to teach, not 'rate' each other. Its a frustrating argument. Obviously change like this takes effort but few (in fact none that I have raised this with) seem willing to put forward a proposal to make it happen. They seem happy for the union to continually tout that performance pay CANNOT be effective. Consequently true advancement and innovation will remain out reach.
Adam Pase | 16 June 2012

I think one of the problems with teaching is that it is less highly regarded because teachers are regarded as being "lower" down the professional scale than lawyers, doctors and similar. That is, I think, one of the reasons for lower pay. In some countries, such as the Scandinavian ones, the situation is different in both aspects and thus might effect educational outcomes. The State Educational Systems in Australia tend to be terribly bureaucratic, so a seemingly simple bureaucratically enforceable system of financial rewards, based on "productivity" outputs measured by KPIs et sim, might seem the ideal way to do things. There is much talk in the press recently about the need for "an educational revolution" which it is hoped will "enhance productivity" and thus "lead us into the Asian century". Could this new "educational revolution" produce more seemingly amoral; semi-literate; woffle speaking "leaders" in government; the bureaucracy and commerce who seem to be unable to make appropriate decisions for this country and their organisations?
Edward F | 16 June 2012

Maybe Eureka Street should install a spell check for all of us teachers who are too rushed and busy to check our own work?
Julia | 17 June 2012

With the guiding principles you stated Frank your students were fortunate indeed and I'm sure fared well, especially if boys.
L Newington | 24 June 2012

Andrew Hamilton's article rests on one invalid assumption: all workers are the same. In fact they are no more the same than athletes are the same. I know of the frustration of school principals who would dearly like to better reward and keep the very good teachers but are prevented from doing so.
We lose too many good teachers exactly because they are treated the same as poor teachers. They have mortgages to pay, children to raise, and holidays to take; it is no wonder that other types of work with higher monetary rewards attract them away from the intrinsic rewards of teaching. The poor teachers remain, unfortunately, to the detriment of the teaching profession and their students. If the good teachers remain in the profession, their only path to recognition, advancement and more money is to take promotion and/or other roles, even removing them from their prime skill: teaching.
We know that money is not the only, nor even the prime, motivator, but it plays a part in meeting the pressures of life, and it's illusory to pretend it is not important.
Yes, measurement of teacher performance is difficult but that is not a sufficient hindrance to doing so. Perhaps the unions could be co-opted into developing performance criteria and continued monitoring of the effects and success, and revise where necessary.
John Garrett | 26 June 2012

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