Teacher performance under the microscope

Performance pay for teachers is in the news at the moment, what with federal Education Minister Julie Bishop in Darwin today for a meeting with her State and Territory counterparts.  Apparently she intends blustering and bullying the States about performance pay, despite an unpublished Australian Council of Educational Research report that debunks Bishop’s proposal to give school principals the power to hire, fire and promote teachers.

It doesn’t take very long to conclude that this is a particularly stupid idea.  Moreover, designing fair and workable performance pay systems is very difficult, a lesson I learned by managing a medium sized legal firm in Darwin during the 1980s and early 90s.  At Andrew Leigh’s blog, commenter Anna Hough succinctly summarised the problems in the context of teaching when this issue raised its head last year:

 I can see difficulties with all the types of measurements I can think of â¦

– âvalued addedâ (student improvement over a given time frame) – difficulties for teachers of special needs or less able students, danger that teachers may only âteach to the testâ or âspoonfeedâ students;

– student assessment of teachers – unworkable in primary schools, danger of malicious student assessment in high schools (e.g. stricter teachers may get unfair assessments);

– principal or other teachers assessing teachers – subjective, may create a tense and competitive, rather than cooperative, environment in schools, and the presence of other staff in a classroom affects student and teacher performance, so may not lead to a true assessment of the teacherâs ability.

There’s also a serious risk that giving principals that sort of power will result in bias and cronyism.  In addition, giving principals powers over their staff equivalent to those of a small business manager in the private sector makes no sense in a situation where they do not have available to them any meaningful “marketplace” information and are not subject to the inherent discipline of the marketplace. 

That isn’t to deny that better career paths for teachers, and tangible recognition of genuine merit and excellence, should be pursued.  Teachers’ current pay scales plateau after about 10 years in the classroom, resulting in excellent, experienced teachers seeking professional advancement elsewhere.  A performance-based promotion system to provide a viable career path for more experienced teachers would reward post-graduate specialist qualifications, acquisition of professional development in-service certificates and other reasonably objective measures of professional excellence.  A career path that provides tangible encouragement to ongoing professional development will help to combat the staleness, rigidity and lack of imagination too often evident in teachers after years of the classroom grind.

However, that isn’t the main focus of this post. There are a couple of underlying issues that I want to explore.  At least some of the impetus towards performance pay (with both Labor and the Coalition embracing varying versions of such proposals) flows from a perception that levels of literacy/competence have fallen over time, in both teachers and their students.  But is this actually true?  My own amateur investigations suggest not.  A significant part of the problem seems to lie with somewhat misleading characterisations of research by ANU economist and blogger Andrew Leigh.  Some of the confusion may even result from Andrew’s own words.

Let’s start with the perception that student literacy and numeracy have fallen over time.  First, this isn’t borne out by international comparative studies like PISA, which consistently show Australia in the top handful of countries in both literacy and numeracy.  Misunderstandings about a 2002 ACER paper by Sheldon Rothman  seem to have provided the genesis of a contrary perception.  Moreover, that perception seems in part to have been fuelled by populist MSM articles by Andrew Leigh:

Quiz time. How much do you think the literacy and numeracy standards of Australian 15-year-olds improved from 1975 to 1998? Those who answered “a little” or “a lot”, stay back after class. The correct answer is: they fell. A report by Sheldon Rothman of the Australian Council of Educational Research shows the literacy and numeracy standards of 15-year-old Australians were lower at the end of the 1990s than in the mid-1970s.

This claim is just plain wrong.  For a start, Rothman’s study looked at 14 year olds not 15 year olds.  But even with that correction Andrew’s claim is still rather misleading.  Rothman’s study analysed literacy and numeracy results between 1975 and 1998 (the most recent period for which comparable test results to 1975 are available).  It provided results for:

  1.  kids who were 14 years old or in year 9 at school (“the whole cohort”) (in fact, to be more accurate, the “whole cohort” samples in earlier years included a very few kids who weren’t 14 but a much wider spread of school years, while the samples in later years included only kids in year 9 but a much larger number of kids who weren’t 14);
  2. kids who were 14 years old irrespective of their school year level; and
  3. kids who were both 14 years old and in year 9.

Only for the latter sub-group was there a clear but small drop in literacy and numeracy over the 23 year period.  There was no such clear drop either for the whole group/cohort studied or for the sub-group of 14 year olds irrespective of school year.  In literacy there was a small but statistically significant overall drop (about 2%) for boys, but no change at all for girls.  In numeracy, there was a small but statistically insignificant overall improvement for both boys and girls.  And there was a significant improvement (around 3%) for students from a non-English speaking background.  Rothman observes:

The results reported here indicate that the achievements of Australian 14-year-olds in reading comprehension and mathematics have remained constant during the period. For some groups, there has been improvement, most notably for students from language backgrounds other than English. For other groups, however, results indicate a significant achievement gap. The most significant gap is between Indigenous Australian students and all other students in Australian schools.

Clearly there is a small but significant literacy problem with boys, a reasonably well known phenomenon not confined to Australia.  As ACER comments in relation to international comparative PISA tests: “girls outperformed boys in all aspects of reading in Australia, as in all other countries in the survey.”  But why the anomalous result for the sub-group of 14 year olds in Year 9?  Rothman concludes that it does not connote worse educational outcomes or stupider students, but merely reflects changes over time in school policies on promoting kids from one school year to the next.  In 1975 schools tended to make much greater use of forcing lower-achieving kids to repeat a school year, whereas by 1998 schools were forcing less kids to repeat a year.  The change is significant: around 8-9%.  Thus, in 1975 the results of 14 year olds in year 9 were inflated by comparison with 1998, because less of the lower-achieving 14 year olds had even reached Year 9.   Accordingly, the change in aggregate results of this sub-group over time says little or nothing meaningful about overall changes in literacy and numeracy.  As Rothman comments:

[T]he group of 14-year-olds in Year 9 in the earlier cohorts may have been of higher ability, because of school-entry and grade retention policies and practices; the decline in scores noted here are more likely a reflection of changing enrolment and promotion practices in individual States and Territories than of changing achievement levels in reading comprehension and mathematics.

It’s unfortunate that Andrew’s MSM articles did not make this critical distinction clear.  This confusion may have contributed to this entire discussion being conducted on a false premise that student literacy and numeracy levels have declined when there is no evidence of that.  In fact, one can plausibly argue that keeping school literacy and numeracy levels constant is a fairly impressive achievement of Australia’s education system given the enormous social and demographic challenges schools have faced over the last 30 years.  As Rothman comments:

In 1975, when students in the first cohort in this report were tested, the war in Vietnam ended. In May of that year, post-war refugees began arriving from that and neighbouring countries in greater numbers than had arrived previously. Since then, immigration from South East Asian and other countries where English is not the main language spoken has increased dramatically. Between 1986, when data were first collected, and 2000, the last year for which data are available, the number of students from non-English-speaking backgrounds enrolled in New South Wales government schools rose by 60 per cent (NSW Department of School Education, 1993a; NSW Department of Education and Training, 2000). In that time, the proportion of students from language backgrounds other than English rose from 15.2 per cent to 23.7 per cent of all enrolments.

Other evident challenges to literacy over the period since 1975 include the large increase in divorce and the number of single parent families (no-fault divorce was only introduced in 1975), and the widespread use in the home of  colour TV and cable TV, computers and the Internet (all of which might be expected to operate as a distraction from kids developing consistent reading habits).

Andrew’s somewhat jaundiced take on changes in literacy and numeracy over time seems subsequently to have led him (together with fellow ANU academic Chris Ryan) to examine changes in teacher “aptitude” and “quality” over time as a possible explanation for the (essentially non-existent) drop in student literacy and numeracy.  Leigh and Ryan define “aptitude” by reference to ACER literacy and numeracy test scores of new teachers, and find that this has fallen by about 8 percentage points between 1983 and 2003.   They conclude:

We believe that both the fall in average teacher pay, and the rise in pay differentials in non-teaching occupations are responsible for the decline in the academic aptitude of new teachers over the past two decades.

I don’t have a problem with that statement, indeed I agree with it.  However, Leigh and Ryan also appear at least to an extent to conflate teacher “aptitude” (i.e. ACER test scores from the teachers’ own school days) with teacher “quality” (their paper is titled ‘How and Why has Teacher Quality Changed in Australia?’).  Andrew acknowledges the distinction in passing in a MSM article about their research, but fails to explore it:

Teacher performance also may be amenable to development through effective training.

In fact I suggest that is precisely what has occurred.  In 1975, and to a considerable extent even in 1983, there were lots of 2 and 3 year-trained teachers.  My ex-wife was one of them.  She upgraded her teaching qualification from 2 years to 3 in 1982 and from 3 to 4 in 1986-7 as a result of Education Department expectations/requirements.  She was only one of many.   Nowadays teachers in just about every State and Territory must be 4 year trained as a prerequisite to teacher registration 

I certainly wouldn’t dispute that the entry-level “aptitude” may have fallen over the last 20-30 years, for reasons ranging from declining comparative salaries to the need to recruit many more teachers in total because of greatly increased student Year 12 retention rates and the drive to reduce class sizes.  But education authorities responded to those pressures by requiring aspiring teachers to spend longer at university.  One could only seriously entertain the proposition that teacher “quality” or “performance” have fallen if you believe that an additional year or two of higher education has made no positive difference to professional outcomes.  The fact that student literacy and numeracy levels have not fallen over the last 20 years, despite major social and demographic challenges, suggests that a fall in average teacher performance is somewhat implausible.  

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Rafe
14 years ago

The major problem with working out where we are at with standards of literacy and numeracy is the opposition of the teachers unions to systems of accountability like standard testing. Even when testing proceeded in NSW there is anecdotal evidence that some teachers did their best to sabotaged the tests by helping the students with the answers. That is precisely the kind of thing that we came to expect in NSW when we observed the hysterical resistance to sensible changes introduced by Metherill under the first Greiner adminisration.

Given the resources that are committed to education and the lengthy training of teachers it is absurd if standards have only stayed the same, they should have risen significantly. It is a preposterous situation if any functional illiterates proceed into high schools.

None of the above necessarily represents an argument in favour of performance pay. It is more about accountability. It is also about parents getting involved if the system does not appear to be working for their child.

swio
swio
14 years ago

In fact, one can plausibly argue that keeping school literacy and numeracy levels constant is a fairly impressive achievement of Australia

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Ken,
Andrew may well have made some overly easy claims out of hastiness (something I agree he shouldnt have done), but would you truly disagree with his general contention in various articles that the relative quality of teachers – i.e. how teachers stack up versus other professionals in terms of pay and in terms of their own ranking at university and school, has gone down? And do you honestly believe its unreasonable of him to expect that Australia should aim for higher standards of literacy and numeracy in the future? My guess is you probably dont. Andrew’s agenda of getting merit pay on the political radar is furthermore in some sense simply heralding a development that is inevitable: the principle of paying those who do well more than others surely cant be kept out of teaching when it has won out in nearly every other walk of life? The only issue is what’s the best way.

Nearly all the objections you raise against principals taking more control would hold for almost any private sector manager. They too make decisions on subjective information, can engage in cronyism, and their actions lead to a competitive environment. Does this invalidate the capitalist system? No. Indeed, its the superiod access of information that makes you want to give the principal the power to act on her superior private information (and therefore subjective information). The whole poin of merit pay is harnass the power of competition to the benefit of students.

The only thing where I agree with your doubts is when you question what the incentives are for school principals to reward the right teachers. That problem appears in exactly the same way in the private sector too though: private sector managers are often accused of being short-term oriented and not sufficiently interested in their clients and the long rnu performance of their organisation. The standard solution in the private sector is to give people long-run incentives and exactly the same would have to apply to school principals: if you want the principals to care about the reputation and long-run performance of a school, you’ve got to give them a sense of long-run ownership over the school or at least over its standing in the community.

Whilst merit pay for teachers may be difficult, I think that opposing it as a matter of principle is futile. Trying to think about the best way to introduce it is a much more productive way to go.

Mark Richardson
14 years ago

“principal or other teachers assessing teachers – subjective, may create a tense and competitive, rather than cooperative, environment in schools”

Anna Hough is spot on in making this comment. As a teacher myself I know first-hand how important a good rapport amongst staff is for maintaining teacher morale.

The last thing teachers need is to have to engage in office politics to maintain their position in the workplace. I know this is a fact of life in many occupations, but teachers really do need to support each other given the difficult working environment.

Also, teacher assessment is likely to stifle innovation. Teachers tend to work in subject areas led by a subject coordinator. It can be difficult enough to do something different to others in your subject area, but if your pay depends on the assessment of your colleagues then it becomes especially risky to step out of line with what the others are doing.

Laurie
Laurie
14 years ago

My main problems with this push for performance pay are:
1) This has already been trialled in many different places, including Australia, at different times, and has not been shown to have made any difference to teacher efforts or outcomes. My Mum is a teacher who had a performance element to her pay, and all it did was add extra layers of administrivia for her to complete each year in order to be given her bonus. What a waste of time.

2) According to Ms Bishop on Lateline last night, it does not look as though this would dealt with within a whole “raise all boats” method of payment, and would have to come out of existing revenues maybe “with some earning less”. To my mind, most of what keeps people (like myself) from going into teaching (despite interest) is that the payscales are shite – its not the lack of bonuses. Three years out of Uni I’m earning almost twice what teacher of the same experience would be – why would I want to take a massive pay cut AND deal with the stresses of the job?

pommygranate
14 years ago

Paul

I agree. It is also very difficult to manage performance based pay in the private sector. I run a team of traders and deciding their year end bonuses is a very subjective process. However, despite the obvious bitching and moaning that occurs down the pub that night, ultimately it is highly motivating for the team to know that those who perform the best will be paid the most.

Can you imagine how demotivating it must be for an enthusiastic and talented teacher in his or her 20s to watch a ponderous, apathetic relic of a teacher be given the Head of Dept job, solely because they have been therr longer?

Is it any surprise that quality graduates are shunning teaching?

pommygranate
14 years ago

Mark

Here’s the process i follow. It’s arduous, and i know teachers are already over-burdened with regulation, but it does work.

Around September each year, i ask for feedback on my staff from four sources –

i) their peers and colleagues
ii) their junior reports
iii) their senior reports
iv) clients (where possible)

Also, i conduct full performance reviews twice a year so they know where they need to improve.

My boss allocates a pool of money to distribute amongst my staff based on the team’s overall performance. It is my call who gets what. Everyone signs a confidentiality agreement forbidding them to discuss their pay. This is essential. Every year, there will be those who are not happy with their pay. They are free to leave. If their performance is very poor, they are asked to leave.

You have to believe me that it really does work. Hardly anyone ever leaves because they are unhapy with their pay as their expectations are very closely managed all year.

Mark Richardson
14 years ago

Paul,

There is already an effective competitive principle within schools. Parents are allowed now to choose which government school to send their child to, rather than having to send their child to the school closest to them.

Given low birth rates and generally declining enrolments, this means that most schools have to work hard to maintain student numbers – otherwise their funding falls and teacher positions are lost.

At my school we have staff meetings every week analysing data about our performance (from VCE results, parent opinion surveys, AIM tests etc). This has already led to significant changes in the organisational structure of the school.

The advantage of this type of competition (retaining student numbers) is that it unites the staff as a body to make overall improvements, rather than setting staff against each other.

swio
swio
14 years ago

pommygranate,

Subjectively rating performance within a team is a relatively simple task but it is only the easy half of the problem giving ratings across an organisation with thousands of staff.

The key problem is how to maintain consistent standards across thousands of staff facing different situations. To relate it to the above situation the difficult question is how do you decide the size of the bonus each principle gets to allocate? For your situation this is again relatively easy. The market decides for you. If your boss gives bonus’s that are too big he goes broke or gets fired, too small and his staff leave. Schools can’t go broke. They don’t operate in much of a market. Some other mechanism has to be found to compare widely different schools and as Ken has noted, such a mechanism is inevitably going to be very complex and expensive. It may be worth it, but there is alot of evidence that it doesn’t actually make much difference. Even alot of very large corporations struggle with the problem of maintaining consistent and fair standards across all teams in the organisation and few of them are as large as the education department.

Mark Richardson
14 years ago

Pommygranate,

Here’s a conversation I had with a student just before the end of term:

Student: Mr S is a great teacher.
Me: Why?
Student: He likes to talk about himself so we don’t have to do so much work.

Here’s another recent conversation:

Students: Do you like Ms T?
Me: Yes, I do.
Students: But she’s such a b—-!
Me: She’s strict. But later when you’ve left school you’ll think she was one of your best teachers.
Students – not persuaded but don’t push the discussion any further.

These are real life conversations. So when it’s suggested that my pay should depend, at least in part on the opinions of my students, can you blame me for feeling apprehensive?

Here’s another real life situation. A few weeks ago a boy in my class stood up and suddenly struck another boy in the head several times before I could get there and intervene.

I was unnerved by this. Obviously it looks terrible for this to happen in your classroom and it shakes your confidence as a teacher. So I went to the student counsellor to ask if there was something happening in the boy’s life to make him behave the way he did. And there was – an extraordinarily abusive circumstance in his home life.

So it wasn’t something to do with my classroom management. But how are the other students in my class to know that? They just saw the punches being thrown. Might this affect their impression of my teaching performance?

The reason I’m giving these examples is to try and give a sense to readers who haven’t taught that teachers often have to deal with immature and irrational behaviours. It won’t always work to try to fit teaching within a model applied to other professions.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Ken,

I’m not disagreeing with the other points you made and make. I’m usually fighting Andrew with your points, i.e. that its incredibly tough to measure teacher performance and that the PISA studies throw a very positive light on Australia’s education standards (which I will also concur with based on the experiences of my 3 school going kids. In some areas, such as computer-based teaching, Oz is great). Indeed, I can only applaud your wish to get underneath the short articles the SMH publishes.
And of course I agree that wage levels for the teaching profession need to go up rather than just introducing relative differences. Teaching a class of kids is at least as important as driving a flying bus, yet the latter profession is paid maybe 10 times more than the former which does not reflect societal value but merely market distortions for flying bus drivers. I’m more than happy to see the pay scales reversed for those two professions.

The issue is though whether its really such a bad idea to have merit pay organised by school principals. I share your concerns about it, but are less bothered by them than you are. You are right that any merit pay scheme needs a lot of information, but a school principal is likely to have that information available at much lower cost than a central bureaucracy would have it. Principals can dig up most of the information in their files and furthermore are the ones most likely to know who to ask what to get a handle on the stuff that’s harder to quantify. I simply dont see why the job of a school principal in terms of finding the best teachers to reward is any harder than that of your average division manager in a private service sector organisation. I also dont see why it is necessary to have exactly the same rules about merit pay between schools (a point Swio raises). The schools with the more sensible implicit merit pay systems will just attract the better teachers, giving principals who use silly rules an incentives to choose better ones. There’s no clear need to enforce equal merit pay rules over schools.

More fundamentally though, a major point where I agree with Andrew is that some form of merit pay is inevitable. The issue is not just what you dislike about the proposals on the table, but whether you have better alternatives to put on the table.

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

Ken, I wish there were as many thoughtful posts on this topic as yours. Apologies in advance for the brevity of my response.

* Our relative rank on PISA/TIMSS/IALS etc (above the OECD average, but not at the top) doesn’t say anything about whether Australia’s literacy and numeracy scores have risen or fallen over time.

* On the ACER LSAY comparison, it still seems logical to me to use 14 year olds in year 9 (the one common group across all tests). I take SR’s point on social promotion, but the 14 year old comparison has us comparing 1975 year 8s with 1998 year 9s. It’s also worth bearing in mind the trends in international maths tests (now TIMSS).

* Since the 1970s, our real income has increased dramatically, Shouldn’t we hope for more than the same levels of literacy and numeracy as when the HJ Holden was the smartest car on the block? Perhaps it’s all explained by divorce and TV, but I’m pretty sure these haven’t increased all that much.

* As to teacher aptitude, you’re right that it’s not a perfect measure of teacher quality, Chris and I say in our paper:

In measuring teacher quality, one would ideally want a broad metric, which captured the ability of teachers to raise student performance on tests, as well as on material regarded as important but difficult to test, such as social skills. A perfect teacher quality metric might also encapsulate the ability of a good teacher to work well with other teachers and school administrators, and to raise their performance in the classroom. Unfortunately, since such a measure of teacher quality is not available over the period in question, we opt instead to use a narrower metric

pommygranate
14 years ago

Swio – yes, this is the hardest part. Allocating the bonus pool to Head Teachers. But again, this can be managed by examining the improvement or worsening of a school agasint a number of measurable benchmarks (not just exam results obviously)

Mark – whilst the input of colleagues is one factor, it only comprises a small aspect. Likewise, i am sure Dept Heads are savvy enough to filter out the student comments and develop a theme.

With regards the abusive student, i would say that if particular difficult students behave much worse in certain teachers’ classes than others, then that is more important than isolated incidents.

I know it seems daunting, but i have seen at first hand how motivating it is for everyone. Doesn’t it piss you off that lazy bored teachers get promoted faster than you just because they have been around longer? It would drive me nuts.

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[…] Parish has a very thoughtful post on trends in

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Here I go defending Andrew from criticism, and then he comes out with this silly statement

‘We can

Mark Richardson
14 years ago

Doesn

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

Paul, I’m grateful to you for your defences, and you’re quite right that I should have said that doubling teacher salaries is politically unfeasible, rather than budgetarily impossible. FWIW, my back of the envelope guess is that it would cost $14 billion per year. (Funnily enough, your very critique occurred to me as I wrote the sentence, but I wrongly figured that no-one would quibble the point.)

Ken, I’m encouraged by your last comment, which suggests to me that there’s much less distance between us than I’d initially thought. Tell me: would you support a handful of merit pay experiments, set up so as to test the claims of both critics and defenders of merit pay? I reckon for about $90 million (which we could get by scrapping the Chaplains in schools program), we could move towards answering a lot of the questions that have been raised here.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

In the public sector I know experienced managers who used to be into “pay for performance” but who through bitter experience now make a point of paying everyone in a team exactly the same performance pay, on the grounds that the productivity gains from collegiality (“we all stand or fall together”) outweighs any productivity gain from extra individual incentive. OTOH I can imagine many sorts of work (principally those where individual productivity is relatively easily measured, such as a trading desk) where the reverse would be true and it would anyway be in the manager’s interest to encourage competition more than co-operation.

But Andrew and Paul are both academics, with teaching responsibilities. So why don’t we start with performance pay in the unis? After all IME the variance in standards in uni teaching is greater than the variance in standards in high schools.

And yeah, regardless of the abstract merits or demerits of performance pay for teachers having it imposed by a spectacularly unqualified minister in remote Canberra is far from ideal.

Jonno
Jonno
14 years ago

Well said derrida derider – that is EXACTLY my experience in the public service of pretending that objectivity and data can be applied in a fair manner in an area that is enormously complex and subjective. It’s a joke. Notice how many public sector organisations publish ANY data on performance pay outcomes. That’s quite a performance measure in its own right – and I would be extremely interested in anyone locating such data.

Supposing that performance pay for teachers is the main game is wrong. My understanding is that Australian shcools do very well on the whole – except for students at the bottom of the pile.

Do you really think that out of this will come a system that enables students in tough areas to get better outcomes (like the student who hit another suddenly quoted above?) The opposite is more likely true in the real world of politics (imagine the Herald Sund front page stories if it succeeded – teachers at school where students do badly in comparison get better performance pay outcomes!)

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Great post and useful discussion. Four comments:

1. The issue of performance pay should be kept separate from the issue of whether Australia’s education standards are good or bad. If performance pay improves outcomes, it should be implemented even if we are already doing well. In any case we can’t determine whether it improves outcomes by comparing ourselves with a lot of other coubrries that don’t have a performance pay system either. Hence Andrew’s interest in carrying out some experiments.

2. We should be careful to distinguish between, on the one hand, a career path with rising responsibilties and pay, and performance pay on the other hand, which involves differential pay for teachers with the same responsibilities, based on some purported measure of their achievements. No reasonable person could object to the former, and it has always been a problem to provide a challenging career path for talented classroom teachers. But it is the latter that Julie Bishop is advocating, and I think it’s an awful idea for all the reasons that Mark and DD have oulined. Andrew is optimistic about perfermance pay as far as I can gather, but I am still not sure where Ken stands.

3. I’m appalled by the argument that performance pay is inevitable, and that the appropriate response is to design the right system. If it’s a bad system, then the appropriate response is to demolish the feeble arguments of its advocates, and make sure people understand the dangers. Why should it be inevitable if the vast majority recognise the stupidity of it?

4. I’m struck by the way teachers’ and principals’ views on performance pay are discounted, as if they’re self-evidently based on narrow self-interest. If teachers say it will undermine morale, stifle incentive and discourage cooperation, then this is a prima facie reason to suppose it will generate bureaucracy, undermine morale, stifle incentive and discourage cooperation. Perhaps some of the teachers who say this are lazy incompetents who dread being flushed out. But there is no reason why they would all say it. If the total remuneration pie is not going to decrease, and may indeed increase, then a decent size minority at least would benefit individually. And yet it’s very hard to find a teacher in favour.

conrad
conrad
14 years ago

I think the whole idea of comparing literacy and numeracy over time and then making some sort of inference as to how teachers are performing is not exceptionally useful since the appropriate benchmark isn’t performance at another given time. This is because:

1) The curriculum, set by the various state governments, is exceptionally important. A bad curriculum with good teachers gives bad outcomes (just look at the phonics vs. whole word debate). That is the government’s fault, not the teachers

2) Managment may have got worse. That might be caused by the individuals, or might be caused by crazy government legislation.

3) Funding conditions relative to resources needed may have got worse. We now need computers, photocopiers etc, all things that constantly get broken and need specialist help. Which poor schools (or universities for that matter) ever have these working well?

4) Social conditions may have changed. There are almost no male primary school teachers now. If you believe this has an effect, then all teachers left are being penalized for something out of their control

5) Teacher training in universities would have become worse due to cuts in funding there. It isn’t the teacher’s fault they get worse training.

6) International cross-country benchmarks are probably a better measure, since what is taught differs across time. For instance, its now considered more important to teach computer skills than long division (which I think is deleted from many curriculums), which is probably true in many countries (or at least more different things are taught compared to 1975). Thus direct comparisons are misleading, since the balance of what is being taught differs.

Because of these confounds, I tend to think that to make the inference about _teacher_ performance, people need to offer some guess as to how much variance these external factors make to performance. For all I know, these external factors could all be negative (certainly 1,2, and 4, would be). In this case, for all I know, teachers might be doing a better job, yet this is not reflected in the numbers.

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

If the total remuneration pie is not going to decrease, and may indeed increase, then a decent size minority at least would benefit individually. And yet it

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

We can

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Andrew teachers too can go for promotion, and I agree with others here that there should be more scope for that. But that’s a far cry from the annual performance pay model being proposed by Julie Bishop. Like Ken, it’s that rather than the general idea of merit pay that I think a bad idea.

So let me put you on the spot here Andrew: do you or do you not think the actually existing proposed scheme by Bishop is a good idea?

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

There is a need to provide teachers with an ongoing career path so they don

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
14 years ago

Good morning. A couple of comments on this very interesting thread

1. Some people above overplay the argument that merit pay leads to a breakdown in collegiality whilst equal pay supposedly preserves it. People seem quite able in many situations to be competitive in terms of wanting to outdo others in some sphere whilst being collegial for the actions where collegiality is better. Just think of professional sports teams. Merit pay is the norm in such teams, and the players that cooperate so well on the job are fierce competitors at the same time, even towards each other such as when it comes to whom is on the team. There’s a good Arab saying that catches the essence of the human ability to see the same person as both friend and competitor: ‘me against my brother; me and my brothers against my cousins; me, my brothers and my cousins against the world.’ I see no inherent reason why merit pay in teaching should or is even likely to lead to a breakdown in collegiality for the areas where that matters.

2. James’ question of the inevitability of merit pay is an important one. Why does it seem inevitable? A couple of reasons. One is that merit pay has been creeping into many areas previously dominated by equal pay scales. Universities have indeed seen merit pay introduced and its advancing quite rapidly; the whole thrust of individual awards is partly motivated by the political will to allow more pay differentiation; the civil service and the government (on both sides of politics) have agreed in the COAG to base more and more of the civil srvice on market principles, which is a sentiment they put in tons of papers such as in the deregulation briefs; the general population has become increasingly used to seeing pay differentiation and is therefore less likely to object to it. hence there’s the political impetus to want merit pay and reduced opposition stopping it. That’s why I think its inevitable. And pommigranates argument that young high talent people are heavily demotivated by seeing others with less merit ahead of them, should not be so easily dismissed. High talent people will seek out those professions where they can distinguish themselves on merit and will avoid those where they just have to accept the reality that non-merit factors dominate pay scales. For the same reason, I’m less pessimistic than Ken Lovell that merit pay wouldnt lead to higher average talent people coming into teaching. Of course he’s right that the rich will not allow their kids to be taught by the worst teachers and that it would need more pay accross the board to improve the talent of the teachers of the poorest. Yet just more pay is not enough to attract the best.

3. I am not in favour of creating ‘objective’ measures of merit, with is what KP and Swio advocate. Collecting the ‘objective’ information in order to create these measures and the machinery to act on them would be an administrative nightmare. You dont have ‘objective measures’ of the worth of CEOs or even of professional sportspeople. Its the subjective evaluation of others that determines their market worth. To think you can find a good administrative rule to reward teachers on is a futile and time-expensive diversion that will probably only benefit the largesse of the ministries rather than the teaching profession. Its an old-fashioned bureaucratic response to want to objectively measure merit. The market approach is to give a boss an incentive to care about an outcome you like and to give that boss the means to reward those she thinks are doing what’s needed to get to those outcomes. You may be interested to recall that Andrew’s original policy favourite was to econometrically measure merit as a form of value added (something Hanushek in the States has been calling for). I am happy to see him having abandoned that idea, or at least he is hiding his love for it a bit more.

David
14 years ago

I seem to ask this every time someone suggests that we need to experiment with merit pay systems in public schools: What has been the experience in private schools? Aren’t private schools free to employ whoever they like and remunerate them however they choose? Haven’t private schools been operating in Australia and elsewhere for decades? Isn’t there any data on this?

I like Andrew’s idea of trials but shouldn’t we start with an assessment of the ‘trials’ that have already been done? Or am I missing something here??

pommygranate
14 years ago

As someone outside the profession but with insight into it (both my brother and his wife are teachers in the UK), i would make the following observations;

i) teacher pay has not kept up with the quantum leap that has occured in the private sector over the past 20 years. For good quality graduates and those seeking a second career in teaching, this is a major issue.

ii) the bureauracy in teaching is becoming unbearable in the UK (i assume it is no different here). my sister-in-law is to switch to supply teaching next year because the large class sizes and increasing emphasis on individual child needs has lead to an intolerable amount of admin.

iii) parents have become more demanding and more critical of teachers. i am a parent of two schoolchildren – i am still shocked at the pushy attitudes of my fellow parents to their kids’ teachers. this has resulted in a power shift from teachers to parents and a concurrent rise in ‘paperwork’

I would like to see teachers’ pay double (and i disagree with those that see this as politically impossible) but not via the basic salary. The performance-related element of pay should be significant (ie up to 1x basic). But i would also like to see a much greater element of choice for parents and the ability of poor parents to send their children to good schools.

pommygranate
14 years ago

David

What has been the experience in private schools?

Well, despite annual fee increases of 8-10% for the past ten years, more and more parents are willing to mortgage themselves to the limit to send their kids to private school. This speaks volumes.

adrian
adrian
14 years ago

Yes, it speaks volumes for the gullibility and stupidity of these people.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Ken

There are only three or four annual increments at each level in the academic pay scale. They’re based on a presumption that we improve with experience, and the scale is sometimes a useful bargaining device in recruitment. In principle, I suppose the scheme also rewards loyalty, although most academics don’t have too many options anyway. But I wouldn’t give my life in defense of annual increments.

More importantly, you have confused me a bit by first disputing the desirability of equal pay for equal duties and then asking what’s wromg with ‘differentials based on assessment of merit (and/or responsibility)’. What’s the difference between responsibilities and duties? We are in total agreement that teachers with greater responsibilities or more demanding duties should be paid more. But merit is another story, if it’s based on an ex-ante assessment of performance. I can’t see a way to do this which is fair, transparent, and objective, and doesn’t distort teachers’ behaviour, casuing them to focus on narrow targets. (There’s not enougg in Andrew’s DEnver link to form a judgement about that case). Much of a teacher’s best work will never be reflected in particular test scores. A teacher might under the present system give extra attention to an individual struggler, or devote a weekend to designing an interesting activity, all with worthwhile results that are not easily measureable; but the same teacher will begrudge the time and energy spent on these things if her fellow teachers are winning money bonuses by coaching kids on test techniques. Nothing in the above comments addresses these and Anna Hough’s other objections.

I think it would be much better to create special positions in schools involving work on innovative projects, supervising student teachers, working with special needs pupils and so on. Successful applicants for the positions would attend inservice, performance-monitored masterclasses in preparation. Actual performance would be motivated in the end by personal high standards and enthusiasm, for the special teachers and the ordinary ones alike. Give people decent pay and oppoprtunities to stretch themselves, and let trust and a spirit of professionalism do the rest.

These sorts of positions already exist to a limited extent, in the form of deputy heads and so on, but there could be more of them. There is also a much bigger role for teachers who move from school to another, setting up programs and training the teachers there in specific techniques, and then moving on to the next school. It’s all a question of money ultimately.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

The above was directed to Ken Parish. As for Ken Lovell, I agree with him.

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

And by ex-ante, of couree I meant ex-post. Bugger.

trackback

[…] performance based pay for teachers, check out this by Ken at Surfdom, Ken Parish’s post at Troppo, Kim’s post at LP, and Slim’s post here at The Dead […]

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

Quick responses to two comments. The first from Derrida.

So let me put you on the spot here Andrew: do you or do you not think the actually existing proposed scheme by Bishop is a good idea?

I’m still a bit confused as to what exactly Bishop is proposing (and I surf onto her personal and ministerial websites didn’t throw up any “here’s my plan” documents). But my preference would be to actually run some careful randomised trials, pitting the schemes against one another, and against the status quo. If Mark is right, then all schemes will lead to worse results than the status quo. If Ken P is right, the principal-rating schemes will do badly. If Paul is right, the econometric model will get the wooden spoon. For relatively little money, we could get answers to all these questions. So far as I know, the existing evidence is pretty thin (aside from a few studies in Israel and Denver), and virtually non-existent for Australia.

And the second from Ken L:

How will some form of either performance-based pay or merit pay (people use the terms as if they are interchangeable, they are not, but let that pass) result in the best teachers teaching the poorest kids?

A good scheme would offer a larger bonus for raising test scores in disadvantaged schools (and yes, when I say ‘poor’, I mean in a wealth sense, not in a test score sense). This approach would get the best teachers teaching the most disadvantaged students. That’s precisely the opposite of what a uniform salary schedule does. Since rich kids are regarded by most teachers as easier to handle than poor kids, a uniform salary schedule encourages the best teachers to go to the high-SES schools: exactly the opposite from what a policy of equality of opportunity would suggest we should do. And yes, there are still some great teachers in low-income schools, but the salary schedule doesn’t encourage them to stay.

[On a side note Ken P, sorry we delayed your missing link for the week.]

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

This approach would get the best teachers teaching the most disadvantaged students.

But Andrew be realistic … such a proposition would be politically unworkable, to put it mildly. As I tried to point out, it’s tantamount to telling parents of students who aren’t disadvantaged that their kids are going to get the second-rate teachers. “Sorry Killara High that you’ve got such a motley lot of teachers this year, all the good ones got sent to Lakemba to teach the disadvantaged kiddies.” What government in its right mind is going to adopt a policy like that?

Actually on reflection, the answer to my rhetorical question might be “A government that wants to reduce the public school system to a bare safety net patronised mainly by the emerging Australian underclass.”

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

I don’t object to putting talented teachers in disadvantaged schools, or paying them better. What I don’t like is the idea that their pay depends on some measure of their results. If it’s something ‘objective’ like test scores it’s bound to be too narrow, and if it’s something more subjective like parents’ and pupils’ opinions, it’s bound to breed mistrust and jealousy. Give teachers resources, training, and pay that reflects the difficulty of the work they’re assigned, and then trust them to do their best. Contrary to Paul, I hope that the tide is moving away from finely tuned material incentives.

Jennifer
14 years ago

Fascinating thread. I find it interesting that there hasn’t been much commentary about the ability to hire and fire (with the exception of Ken Parish, who refers to it as being bad in the “God Principal” model).

My experience is only really as a consumer, but the main difference between my middle class suburb public education, and my brothers’ private school education was that my brothers didn’t get any really shockingly bad teachers, whereas there were a few in every school I went to.

It seems to me that the ability to hire and fire teachers who fit into the schools’ ethos, or teach badly, respectively, would help principals enormously. I don’t imagine that teachers would get fired very often, but the possibility of it happening would probably change some behaviours for the better.

And as a parent in one of those middle class suburbs which automatically gets the good teachers, I don’t think raising salaries in disadvantaged areas would be as bad as you might think. There is always a huge applicant pool for teachers in my son’s school. But given that the choice of who gets the job is mostly about seniority – serving your time in some other disadvantaged school – I don’t think we necessarily get intrinsically better teachers, just more experienced ones.

If the poor, ESL, western suburbs schools were able to pay their teachers more, they might just get more permanent teachers, who were willing to invest in schools, rather than teachers who are just serving their time and desperate to get out into the nicer areas.

But to me, the biggest issue, the one which nobody in government seems to be addressing seriously, is that teachers salaries compared with comparable jobs elsewhere (even in the public sector) have slipped significantly in status. It was hard to find good maths teachers when I was at school. Now, when there is a huge demand for mathematical skills in the financial sector, it must be practically impossible. Performance pay, without major increases in possible salary, is just fiddling around the edges of the problem.

Ken Lovell
14 years ago

Now Julie Bishop demonstrates her woeful ignorance of basic management concepts by equating skill with performance:

“Those who are assessed as being more skilled – their performance is better than others – would have a salary increase. Those who would not be so assessed would be paid less.”

Fortunately the state ministers seem to have headed her off successfully and it will be all smoke and mirrors from now to the election. If Howard’s mob gets back though who knows what else they might try.

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

Ken L, if you wanted to set up a pay system that encouraged the most talented teachers to teach the richest kids (without being too obvious about it), you’d design something that looked like the present system.

Allowing disadvantaged schools to pay more merit pay than affluent schools doesn’t seem to me to be politically unfeasible. Latham proposed something along these lines in 2004, and Bishop seems open to the idea now.

Let’s not pretend that uniform teacher salary schedules are serving the interests of disadvantaged kids.

observa
observa
14 years ago

Ken Lovell raises the major objection to grading teachers by merit and paying them accordingly. To that I’d point you all to a comparison of the AFL teams approach vs the English or European Soccer approach. Basically you have a draft allocation for each school (most probably classes of schools) be it an overall salary cap and a points cap. Recall how Sydney and Brisbane were given special salary cap concessions for a legup. We can imagine this being true for ‘problem’ schools and remote area ones. Perhaps a points market could be set up depending on demand by principals for particular teachers.(sort of a market in education monopoly dollars)The individual teachers could choose to go to a school with their high points and high dollars, but like Brisbane stars, opt to take a reduction in salary for their ‘club’ of choice. Each year teachers can nominate for the draft, but school principals must be mindful of their overall salary/points caps. To kick it off, teachers could be offered a choice. Stay out of the draft and where you are and your salary is frozen at current levels. Enter the draft and you may participate in increasing remuneration, depending on qualifications and school principal demand.

observa
observa
14 years ago

Basically a dirty or managed float, which as we can all agree keeps the overall game of AFL affordable and close.

Andrew Leigh
14 years ago

Observa, interesting idea. Equality of opportunity, the Aussie way?