The federal government announced a series of education reforms in the recent budget. One of these was linking pay to performance for teachers. Yet linking teacher pay to demonstrated competency, usually called “performance pay” or “merit pay”, is not supported by evidence and damaging.
A culture of accountability, performativity, and commodification is part of what Finnish scholar Pasi Sahlberg calls the global education reform movement (GERM) that is “infecting” the world’s school systems.
Pay that commodifies teacher performance, and pits teachers against each other, alienates teachers. It creates a culture of fear and isolation rather than growth and collaboration.
Performance pay is unsupported by evidence
Performance pay initiatives have been experimented with around the world, with little success.
Countries such as Israel, England, Kenya, and India, as well as many North American states, have implemented performance pay models that intend to raise the quality and accountability of teachers.
These evaluative models often involve scoring teachers and schools, putting a number to their effectiveness based on lesson observations and student test scores.
For example, as part of the Education Transformation Act of 2015, New York reformed its Annual Professional Performance Review and Teacher Effectiveness rating system, despite the fact that it has not been shown to improve student achievement or teacher practice.
Measurements are unreliable and standards are problematic
Measures of teacher effectiveness are unreliable.
The extensive Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project study revealed the complexity of teacher evaluation and highlighted the variability of teachers’ ratings by observers.
It pointed to the challenge of developing shared understandings of what standards look like at different levels, and how to ensure fairness when they are assessed by different evaluating teachers.
Standards can also be problematic. The MET study showed the difficulty of getting teacher evaluators to achieve consistent ratings against frameworks like the Danielson Framework for Teaching, which has a specific set of standards with detailed explanations and examples.
The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers does not have the specificity of the Danielson Framework, maling it even less effective at measuring teacher competency. The Australian standards are vague, providing overarching statements of practice for the profession, but not dependable measures of teacher competency.
Performance pay is damaging
While some studies cite the potential for merit pay to increase productivity, these are inconsistent with the work of key motivational theorists like Daniel Pink and David Rock. They argue that a carrot-and-stick approach results in resistance and is ineffective in changing behaviour. Instead, it extinguishes intrinsic motivation, crushes creativity and crowds out positive action.
When teacher performance measures are linked to job or financial decisions, teachers are unlikely to innovate, tending instead to performance-teach to the evaluation.
What is needed are positive drivers of change
The government wants to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in Australia, in order to improve the learning and achievement of Australian students.
This is an admirable goal, but negative drivers of change such as performance pay for teachers, are toxic to education.
Education reform needs to move away from a focus on performativity and accountability measures such as those outlined in the budget, and instead focus on trusting and supporting teachers.
In fact, the more effective intervention would be to concentrate on how to make teachers better educators.
Teachers need support through coaching, mentoring, consultation, action research, and collaboration in professional learning communities. In this way they can make evidence-informed decisions, analyse their own impacts on student learning, and develop their practices in ways that benefit their students.