Putting paid to performance pay

Teacher performance pay is a ‘zombie policy’ that refuses to die. IEU member and Education Consultant Michael Elphick and Organiser Pat Devery explain why this failed idea must be killed off – yet again.

It seems that every time a conservative government is asked to address unsustainable workloads, staff shortages and school staff pay, they jump straight to performance pay for teachers, as announced by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet via the Sydney Morning Herald in June.

Performance pay assumes that teachers and support staff will only perform well if they are offered a financial incentive. It also implies that poor-performing teachers are to blame for the many issues schools face, including alleged declines in education outcomes. The politicians tell us rejecting performance pay reveals a profession resistant to sensible reforms.

Yet as far back as 2012, a Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report found that the “overall picture reveals no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes” (PISA in Focus, 2012/05 p2).

Motivating factors

Social scientist Frederick Herzberg considered 14 factors as essential to human motivation. His work, building on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, concluded that the higher order factors – achievement, recognition, responsibility, opportunities for growth – were all elements of a person’s sense of professional worth.

Salary and working conditions were important, Herzberg said, but only in creating the environment for the other factors to operate effectively. He considered financial remuneration to be a workplace “hygiene factor”, a powerful demotivator when insufficient but failing to increase motivation once considered adequate.

This confirms the PISA finding that performance pay does not move the dial on student performance in high-income countries.

What the proponents of performance pay fail to grasp is that the falling pay and unsustainable workloads of teachers in schools and early childhood centres means the basic requirements for professional worth are not being met. As a result, they are operating as powerful demotivating factors in attracting and retaining teachers. Something needs to change.

Successful schooling is a collaborative and cooperative effort: teachers mentor each other and share resources; students move between classes; some teachers take more difficult students to lighten the load elsewhere; some teachers accept higher class numbers to allow for smaller cohorts in specialist learning areas.

Teachers and support staff all contribute to the success of the whole in countless ways. A reward system that ignores this is antithetical to the very culture necessary for sustainable school improvement.

Lacking detail

Besides ignoring the extensive body of knowledge on human motivation in the workplace amassed since the 1960s, supporters of performance pay consistently fail to provide any detail as to how it might work in practice.

Any fair and just performance pay system would need to define ‘high performance’ along with the metrics to measure best practice both within and across schools. Will we use data from public testing, HSC and NAPLAN? Is teaching to be reduced to this kind of measure? What do we use in the interim years, with the cohorts not facing these benchmarks?

By delivering a public good such as schooling through a mix of public and private providers, we have introduced competition between schools for students of talent and ability. The shortest path to academic success for a school has become pitching for the kind of student who would do well wherever they are enrolled.

Performance pay would simply pit teachers against one another for a small pool of higher paid roles while doing nothing to address inadequate salaries across the board.

- IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Secretary Mark Northam

Performance pay threatens to bring this competitive practice inside a school itself. Why take on the more challenging students and run the risk of poor results and therefore falling enrolments? For a system that already requires an enormous amount of teacher goodwill to remain viable, performance pay presents a clear and present danger.

Who gets the prize?

Since 2010, more than 30,000 Year 12 students across Catholic systemic and independent schools have participated in an annual exit survey conducted by Michael Elphick and Associates. Students are asked if an external tutor had been engaged in their preparation for the HSC. Across all schools the use of an external tutor averages 39 percent, with the highest use of a tutor in an individual school being 69 percent. In such an environment it could be asked: ‘Who owns the Band 6?’

Even if we can establish there has been a ‘value add’ in a particular class, who is to say it arose from the activity of a single year or subject teacher? How would we apportion the reward? Doesn’t a Year 12 history class benefit from the great work of the English teachers who also help students write a strong essay? Aren’t literacy skills integral to success in maths and physics? A large body of research confirms that music and language study enhance literacy and numeracy skills.

What of the primary school teachers who contributed to an HSC student’s learning in their earlier years? Are they rewarded or does the prize only go to the last runner in the relay?

Worth of wellbeing

Perhaps the most compelling argument against performance pay sits at a basic human level. How would we value contributions to wellbeing?

Upon hearing Mr Perrottet’s performance pay proposal, a school principal, who is an IEU member, said: “I recently had a former student thank me for saving their life through the support we provided them during their time at school while they were experiencing severe mental health issues. Should I and my staff put in for back pay?”

There may be professions in which performance pay is appropriate and improves workplace performance. Education is not one of them.

Further reading

Performance pay, revamped school hours: Premier flags education reforms, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 2022

PISA in Focus, 2012/05, p 2: oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/pisainfocus/50328990.pdf

Herzberg’s two-factory theory of motivation: simplypsychology.org/herzbergs-two-factor-theory.html