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Read the room, Premier. Performance pay for teachers will make the crisis worse

Without fail, every time a politician is tasked with reforming education, the issue of performance-based pay for teachers is put on the table. It’s odd, really, that such a controversial idea can keep making the rounds with such enthusiasm from government leaders. But that’s exactly what New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet has announced as part of his platform to reform education.

The policy is being framed as innovative and designed to “modernise the education system”, according to the premier.


Read more: Almost 60% of teachers say they want out. What is Labor going to do for an exhausted school sector?


The proposal has drawn swift criticism. The two largest teachers’ unions in the state – the NSW Teachers Federation and the Independent Education Union of Australia (NSW/ACT) – unanimously voted to strike for 24 hours this Thursday, June 30, in the dispute about pay and staff shortages. It’s the first time members of the two unions will strike together.

It is unclear whether the premier anticipated this sort of response, but a brief look at how similar proposals have been received in the past suggests it isn’t very surprising.

The proposal ignores everything we have learned about why teachers are leaving the profession. We know they are leaving because of unbearable workloads, low morale and stagnant pay.

Performance pay will not resolve the fundamental problems that lead to teachers leaving. It does risk making matters worse.


Read more: Higher salaries might attract teachers but pay isn't one of the top 10 reasons for leaving


What’s the evidence on performance pay?

What do we know about similar efforts to introduce performance pay for teachers? There is a lot of international evidence to draw upon. Unfortunately, the evidence paints a grim view of what performance pay might look like in the Australian context.

To begin, what is performance pay? And why do government leaders keep proposing it as a solution for school reform?

Performance-based pay is built on a simple premise: good teachers should be financially rewarded for excellent teaching. The idea is that teachers will be motivated to try harder, perform better and produce better outcomes.

This might sound like a great idea. Don’t we want good teachers to be compensated for their exceptional performance? According to decades of research, however, there are many problems with this premise.

First of all, we know that the best teaching occurs when teachers are able to collaborate, share and learn from one another. This only happens when teachers have the time, but also the motivation, to work together.

Performance pay, on the other hand, is based on a model of competition. Only the best will receive financial rewards. Others will miss out.

Creating this kind of competitive environment has been detrimental to collegiality, trust and morale among teachers. At a time when teachers are already finding their workloads unbearable, adding a layer of competition is the last thing that will help keep them in the classroom.


Read more: Performance pay for teachers will create a culture of fear and isolation


It requires a level playing field, which doesn’t exist

One area that most performance pay research is clear about is that such policies require very specific conditions to be effective. At the same time, this research shows that achieving perfect conditions is nearly impossible.

The only way to make performance pay fair is to create a perfectly level playing field for all teachers. Of course, this is unrealistic. Classrooms are messy, complex environments.

Students have varied backgrounds, different levels of privilege and diverse needs. Teachers are expected to teach all students, regardless of the circumstances.

However, research has shown us time and again that different levels of advantage have a significant influence on outcomes. When teachers teach in schools or classrooms with high concentrations of disadvantage, it is often harder for them to demonstrate achievement growth.

On the flip side, experts also warn of “ceiling effects”. When teachers teach high concentrations of high-performing students, they also struggle to demonstrate learning growth.

In one notorious case in the US, a teacher lost out on performance pay because he taught high-performing students. His students had already performed so well that this left little room for growth in achievement. This teacher went “backwards” because students didn’t achieve their predicted scores – some better than perfect – under the state’s value-added model (VAM).

Florida’s value-added model of performance pay penalised teachers of high-performing students.

Read more: Making better use of Australia's top teachers will improve student outcomes: here's how to do it


Decades of work haven’t solved these problems

These are just some of the issues that have to be resolved before performance pay can be considered a viable option. School systems around the world have been trying to do so for decades, with limited success.

What we have learned from these attempts is that performance pay is based on narrow measures of quality that inevitably lead to poor teaching practice. Not only is the policy outdated and ineffective, but international evidence shows performance pay damages teacher morale and collegiality.

At a time when teachers are leaving the profession in droves, this policy proposal threatens to make current conditions even worse. Now is not the time to take an already precarious workforce and impose policies we know have had damaging effects elsewhere.

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