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Putting students last by rejecting performance pay

By Jonathan J. Ariel - posted Wednesday, 18 April 2007

While Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop didn’t greet her state and territory counterparts with the proverbial, “Send in the clowns”, she may as well have, given their rank hypocrisy in rejecting her plans to skew teachers’ pay towards performance and away from length of service.

A big fat “F” is just what state and territory ministers deserve for rejecting the plans. The losers of course, will be school students. They’ll lose twice: first they remain saddled with the current crop of teachers; and second, better quality teachers will continue to be discouraged from entering the profession.

The Bishop Plan could have seen teachers’ pay based on three criteria: an assessment of their work, student exam results and parent feedback. Ms Bishop sought to measure teachers’ performance by their output rather than the traditional input centric yard sticks that to this day, contaminate the public service.


The unstinting devotion state and territory education ministers have to their education union masters was revealed when Victoria’s acting Education Minister Jacinta Allan boasted at the Darwin meeting that “it has been a succession of failures for the federal minister in wanting to progress her agenda”. Perhaps Ms Allan considers the mass exodus of students from the state-based government school systems into non government schools as a ringing endorsement of the public schools system?

While state and territory ministers can’t seem to do the simple maths on performance pay, it is worthwhile to note that the issue got a push forward last year in the United States.

In 2006, a group of educators from both public and private schools, both unionised and non unionised, came together in the belief that teachers needed to be paid differently. They agreed that a well crafted performance-pay system has huge potential to transform the teaching profession in ways that can help all students learn more (Performance Pay for Teachers - Designing a System that Students Deserve).

The group believed that teachers who perform at high levels and spread their expertise to other teachers deserve extra compensation for their performance and accomplishments.

The group’s starting point was that the current, stale half century-old teacher salary pay scale was designed with good reasons in mind: to promote gender equity and to protect teachers from erratic administrators. But it has long passed its use by date.

The study pushed for eight performance pay outcomes:

  • that every student deserves a quality teacher;
  • strengthen the current pay scales;
  • attract talent to the profession;
  • encourage every teacher to grow professionally;
  • reward teachers based on their ability to help students make significant and measurable academic gains and reward teachers for helping achieve success for all students in a school;
  • acknowledge that individual student learning is significantly influenced by more than just an individual teacher;
  • provide adequate resources for teachers to do their jobs; and
  • appreciate that teachers bring different levels of skills and ability to their work and that some teachers actually outperform others.

These goals were not unique to the study group, but were shown to be shared society wide: from parents and teachers to business leaders, economists and public policy makers.

The facts were ugly: the profession had a high turnover rate and that the best and brightest were not attracted to teaching. Irrespective of their ideological leanings, there was widespread agreement that to ensure a stable, high-quality workforce, teachers need to be paid both more and differently.

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About the Author

Jonathan J. Ariel is an economist and financial analyst. He holds a MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management. He can be contacted at

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