Performance-based pay for teachers could kill collegiality

Performance-based pay for teachers could kill collegialitySome 200,000 teachers work in nearly 10,000 Australian schools teaching 3.1 million students. Proposals about teacher education and teacher pay have figured in almost all the 24 reports on education commissioned by the Federal Government since 1998.

Most people agree that teachers generally are underpaid, and also that very good teachers are significantly underpaid. A substantial pay increase that moved the profession into new territory would be prohibitive, and introducing a system that rewards "good" teachers becomes problematic as soon as one seeks to define the nature of such a system. Only the very rich schools can afford large above-award payments for all teachers, and the new Industrial Relations laws may well accelerate this gap.

Why the focus on teachers and pay? Every significant study of education, here and abroad, identifies the quality of teachers, together with the ethos of a school that teachers help shape, as being fundamental to the quality of education. Teachers are a school’s most valuable resource. Concerns have also been raised by the looming shortage of teachers in some areas, and by the perception that the profession has not been attracting enough quality new teachers (anecdotally, at Aloysius and our other Jesuit schools, the quality of students entering teaching in recent years has been excellent and seems to reflect a resurgent interest in teaching).

The problem with the present system of teachers' pay has been laid out clearly by Minister Bishop: unless a teacher goes into school administration "they can reach the top salary level within nine years of starting. That's, on average, at 30 years of age, whether they are any good or not, and then their salary is capped". She goes on to ask "so where's the incentive for the next, say, 20 or 30 years?"

I suspect many younger teachers, in particular, would agree with her identifying the challenge of keeping talented teachers in the classroom. How to reward those teachers who go the extra mile, and how to have a system of rewards that is not simply based on seniority that rewards equally those who might simply be serving time or those who, as there are in any profession, do the bare minimum.

The present "one size fits all" approach has a deadening hand. It imposes a civil service-style approach to a role that can be extraordinarily varied in its nature.

Performance-based pay for teachers could kill collegialityThe problem with the performance pay proposals is the risk of overlaying another model onto teaching, namely that of the corporate workplace with performance pay measured by clearly identified results. Apart from the fact that some big executives appear to earn incomes beyond any reasonable criteria and get severance deals when companies lose money, teaching would not easily, nor would I think desirably, moved to such a template.

There is a collegial aspect to teaching that is real and important. Teachers build on the work of each other. An overly competitive environment could pit teacher against teacher, and therefore student against student. Parents could compete to get their children into the classes of teachers who have received performance bonuses.

Some teachers may not achieve remarkable things academically, but may have a major impact on their students in the wider task of formation. All of us have characters in the story of our education who exercised an influence on us that would unlikely be captured by any performance measure. The make-up of a classroom can have a great impact on the learning environment, while being largely outside the teacher’s control. Senior teachers might expect to be placed with classes that would maximise the chances of earning a performance bonus.

The question of performance pay raises an almost endless number of similar issues. And it is not simply a question for teachers. The result could dramatically impact on a school’s ethos and the learning environment of students, the very relationships that educational research have identified as central to good schools.

My concerns about such proposals are not an endorsement of the status quo. Genuine concerns about teachers’ pay have been identified. One measure that goes some way to rewarding effort is that of professional development, where teachers acquire further qualifications and skills relevant to their teaching (such as a Masters degree), then the school assists in paying that cost, and salary scales may reflect something of such qualifications. Co-curricular payment schemes can reward the extra hours and talents employed by our staff in the sport, music, drama, debating, cadets and other areas of interaction with students.

 It is worth looking at creating a culture that encourages teachers to suggest or accept specific projects that add value to our educational offerings, require greater commitment to research, time and energy and carry with them agreed upon bonuses. And there needs to be some form of differentiation of payment for teachers after the ten or so years in the profession that acknowledges ability, contribution, creativity and the like. The challenge is that the measure of such achievement must be flexible and sensitive to the culture of the school. It will be a challenge for all schools to be allowed the autonomy needed for schools to go down such a path.



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