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Insight into teachers' merit pay rises

By Mercurius Goldstein - posted Monday, 2 October 2006

I had the very good fortune recently to attend a taping of SBS TV's Insight program, attended by such luminaries as the Federal Minister for Education Julie Bishop, distinguished educator and former Abbotsleigh Principal Judith Wheeldon and education strategist Dr Kevin Donnelly. Also in attendance was Melina Marchetta, author of Looking for Alibrandi, many public & independent school principals, head-teachers and some heavy-hitters from the teacher unions. Credit is also due to SBS for finding many fine school students to attend - without whom none of us would have a job.

As you can imagine, this combination made for a lively and enlightening debate about the Minister's controversial proposal to introduce merit-based pay for teachers. To her credit, the Minister is consulting widely on this matter and as she remarked, since the current state-federal funding agreements are in place until 2008, there is nothing doing until then. However, during the program, the Minister announced her intention to round-table and finalise a proposal for state education Ministers during 2007, but on which side of the election, we are yet to hear.

Merit-based pay has its boosters in various upper echelons of the para-education industry that runs alongside actual teaching: those legions of consultants, advisers and policy wonks who have the Minister's ear. They can speak quite capably for themselves. The purpose of this article is to highlight some of the key difficulties any merit-based system must first address before it can hope to achieve its stated aims of rewarding good professional practice in teaching. Whether these issues are insurmountable is ultimately a question for the Minister, who will some time next year finalise her political decision about the art of the possible on this issue.


Let me first declare an interest: As an incoming teacher, I personally stand to benefit a great deal over the course of my career from a merit-based pay system. Were I to meet the various criteria and hurdles for advancement, I could hope to boost my salary  by perhaps 10-20%, or who knows possibly more, for every year in the profession. That is no small inducement.

So when someone in my position suggests there really are problems with merit-based pay, you know I'm serious.

Many teachers on the show highlighted the difficulty in measuring so much of what they do: how do you reward a teacher for improved academic performance when just getting the kids to turn up can sometimes be that day's biggest achievement? What is a word of encouragement worth? Shall we be auditing the number of gold stars and demerits handed out?

Other teachers cite the potential damage to collegiality, a point well-made by Judith Wheeldon in her recent articles for The Australian. It would be to the detriment of all students if teachers began to jealously guard their professional tips from one another, to preserve the enhanced pay status that their "secret of success" had brought them. Far better to keep the current informal culture whereby virtually every teacher who ever had a good lesson has now posted their lesson plan to the farthest corners of the internet.

But the most dangerous trap for a merit-based system would be if it were directly tied to students' performance. The Minister has made reference in her public comments to pilot merit-systems in the UK and US, which prima facie show some positive results, at least in the first 1-2 years. While these are nice quick results that fit neatly into the election cycle, they are yet to reveal what long-term structural issues may eventuate: in other words, the jury is still out.

Furthermore, we know the Minister is a fan of teaching history in the schools, so a history lesson on performance incentives is also in order. In British schools during the 19th century, when teachers' pay packets were tied to their students' results, the darker angels of human nature unfortunately provoked all kinds of improper collusion between teachers and students to cheat on exams and raise marks, along with intimidation and expulsion of slow-learning pupils. These scandals are widely documented in histories of British education.


And, as one bright student on the show put it hypothetically, if he didn't like a teacher and knew her pay would suffer for his bad performance, he (and his mates) would be inclined to "do bad" on a test, just to cut her pay. The potential for counter-productive results is clear.

I know it seems far-fetched that this could happen in 21st century Australia, but we must remain mindful of these hazards before we leap enthusiastically into this "new idea" that is actually 150 years old. Indeed, our current performance-neutral pay scales were developed largely as a response to the old, corrupted British system. Consider today's finance sector: look at the scandals bonus pay created at Enron, Barings Bank and the NAB currency desk. Is this really the kind of system we should be introducing in our schools?

A final point is that extra pay is not that great an incentive for attracting or retaining great teachers. The most common reason for leaving the profession cited by ex-teachers is the huge increase in administrative non-teaching workload due to the decimation of teachers' aides. This suggests a reduction in paper-shuffling (not hours worked, mind you) might be a more effective strategy. And after all, a reduction in workload is an effective pay-rise, but much cheaper on the public purse.

That in summary is the case for the negative. I don't expect that it will change the minds of anybody who is hell-bent on a merit-based pay system, however we can only say "you have been warned" and need to, at the very least, formulate an adequate response to these issues.

Rather than create yet another remuneration system, with yet another layer of expensive bureaucracy and administration to support it, may I suggest a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars, and one that doesn't carry the same professional risks? Since  teacher pay is ultimately an issue for which state ministers are responsible, I have a very simple, easily administered proposal for them, and one for which there is unanimous support from within the profession. Don't wait for 2008: decrease the administration, and increase all teachers' pay. Now.

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About the Author

Mercurius Goldstein is Head Teacher at an International School and is retained as a consultant at The University of Sydney as a teacher educator for visiting English language teachers. He is a recipient of the 2007 Outstanding Graduate award from the Australian College of Educators, holding the Bachelor of Education (Hons.1st Class) from The University of Sydney. He teaches Japanese language and ESL. These views are his own.

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