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On performance pay for teachers, and why Hekia really doesn’t know whence she speaks

March 13th, 2014

Performance pay — yes, it’s a great idea. Let’s embrace it. It is, quite clearly, the way ahead, the best way to wring the last few drops of effort out of any worker. It’s fantastic. I like it.

And so let’s see it in action, then, shall we? Let’s apply it to…oh, let’s see, let’s apply it to Members of Parliament. MPs, you see, make a decent salary, but they have no incentive to work harder, to do more for their constituents or the country. Performance pay’s how we’re going to get value for money from our MPs. And where better to start than with Hekia Parata, our Minister for Education? Hekia makes $257,800 per year as a cabinet minister — well over a quarter of a million dollars, or, if you prefer, about three and a half times the highest salary on the secondary teachers’ pay scale — and that’s before we even start to look at the various non-cash entitlements that she receives to make her job easier. And this salary is fixed — it’s not based on her competence. Which is, for her, perhaps as well — given the fact that she only holds one portfolio, and even then couldn’t manage the ongoing debacle that is Novopay, and continues to mismanage the reconstruction of Christchurch’s schools, if her salary were to be based on her competence, she’d be owing the Crown millions by now. But mercifully for her, her salary is guaranteed, no matter how devastatingly and magnificently incompetent she manages to be.

Hekia Parata

Hekia Parata (with thanks to Bryce Edwards)

Performance pay for MPs and ministers, then, clearly isn’t on the table. Of course not — they’re professionals, they work hard, they don’t need the extra carrot of performance pay to make them better MPs. What, anyway, would that even mean? What does a better MP look like? More votes cast, more speeches made?

It is, of course, impossible to quantify quality in a job like MP or minister of the Crown. Too many are the variables, too vague and imprecise the metrics. And yet, and yet…this is precisely what the Minister wants to impose on teachers. Setting aside the woman’s quite astonishing nerve at claiming that teachers are in favour of performance pay (I’m not, and I’ve yet to meet one that is), let’s focus on the idea of performance pay for teachers. What, precisely, would it look like?

In order for performance pay to be implementable, there needs to be some way of quantifying performance. What, then, are the criteria by which to measure performance? Student achievement is the most frequently cited option, but how is that to be measured fairly? There are countless variables so far beyond a teacher’s control that it is unfair to hold a teacher responsible for them but which have enormous influence on a student’s performance. First and foremost among these is parental involvement — I know, and so do my colleagues, that a child who does not have education valued and reinforced at home will be unengaged, and will underperform, at school. But I have no control over what my students hear at home; I simply have to deal with the attitudes they bring to class.

But even if we could just set aside parental involvement or its lack, and simply assume that our marks are the benchmark we will observe, no two teachers have the same working conditions, in the same school or even in the same department. I teach physics, and have the great advantage of, for the most part, teaching students who have opted to take my subject, who want to be in my class and who are, hence, likely to do well in their NCEA exams. I am, as a result, much more likely to have a high pass rate than an English teacher, teaching a subject that is required of all students, engaged and otherwise, and who is lucky to get all his class even to turn in an assignment. And both my English-teacher colleagues and I have results that can’t be compared with the results of another teacher who teaches only junior classes, with no senior students’ NCEA marks to hold next to ours.

So clearly exam results, too, can’t be used to gauge performance for the purpose of rewarding it with additional pay. But don’t worry — a good principal knows what a good teacher looks like, and can identify those whose performance warrants extra pay. But can he, really? If we try to come up with actual criteria for quality teaching — learning intention on the board, success criteria differentiated by ability, instruction differentiated by learning modality, and so on and so on and so on and so on — then we’re not actually assessing actual teaching, but rather counting the number of boxes a teacher’s managed to tick. A learning intention on a whiteboard is a shackle, a straitjacket that constrains a lesson, while a truly brilliant teacher will be able to respond to students’ needs and interests as the lesson proceeds, learning intention be damned, but if writing up, and sticking to, a learning intention is required, then creativity is sacrificed in favour of box-ticking.

With the tick-box approach off the table, what’s left? Management perspectives and assessment is what’s left, and this is where performance pay once and for all perishes as a valid construct. Management perspectives — with the greatest possible  respect for school managers — is inherently, and inescapably, subjective. And subjective is, ultimately, just a polite way of saying based on favouritism. If my manager — my department head, a deputy principal or the principal himself — likes me, my appraisal will inevitably look better than it would if my manager doesn’t. I’ve worked under principals I’ve got on great with, and would likely be trousering a decent wedge of performance-related pay if one of them were to be in charge of the process. I’ve also worked under intolerably officious and obnoxious managers who would no sooner give me performance pay than they would themselves haemorrhoids. But I’m the same teacher, doing the same job.

Performance pay for professionals is, unavoidably, subjective. It simply is. There is no escaping the fact that it would involve favouritism, cronyism, being on the in, having a face that fits. Hekia Parata does not have to work to work under such an intolerable regime, no matter how entertaining it might be to watch her try; she has no business trying to impose it on teachers.

6 responses to “On performance pay for teachers, and why Hekia really doesn’t know whence she speaks”

  1. Dianne Khan says:

    Perfectly said, Steve, on every point. The problems with performance pay are huge and it would not serve teachers, parents, Ministers, tax-payers or – most importantly – students for it to be implemented.

  2. Ray says:

    Yes, put Hekia on performance pay!!

  3. Marian Hobbs says:

    Thanks, Steve, for putting this down so clearly. I totally agree with your argument.
    I saw some of the mechanisms that were part of the performance pay judgement operating in English schools and they were all that you referred too: subjectivity clothed in apparently rational judgements.

  4. Bev Reader says:

    Totally agree Steve. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Very true on the learning intention I tend to go on tangents and lose focus of the intention but when my students are engaged I want to explore that. Can not see how performance pay will make for a better teacher ,you either are or are not .

  5. Kieran says:

    Not to mention the lack of collegiality performance pay encourages.
    Well written article. Agree on all points

  6. Julie Lawsom says:

    Today, my last lesson didn’t go so well. I know why and will fix it tomorrow. If I were to compare my daily lessons with Hekia Paerata’s performance, every day would be lesson 5 today. A great teacher learns from their mistakes, which are sometimes daily, and does better the following day. Perhaps our Minster for Education could just focus on improving her own performance, before trying to ‘fix’ us?

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