No 'performance pay' for teachers!

August 16, 2008

On August 4, the Australian Education Union's (AEU) federal president Angelo Gavrielatos announced the union's proposed reforms for teachers' career structure and salaries. It amounts to an endorsement of the divisive "performance pay", in which schools are treated as businesses rather than places of teaching and learning.

The AEU doesn't use those exact words, preferring instead the term "professional pay". However, it's clear from examining the proposal that the AEU is advocating "performance pay", which ties teachers' pay to teacher proficiency appraisals.

In 2007, in the lead-up to the federal election, then education minister Julie Bishop, PM John Howard and other Coalition MPs pushed the performance-based pay model for teachers. There were even threats to withhold federal funding for public education unless the states introduced elements of performance pay.

The Howard government proposed that payments would be tied to: students' exam results; ratings of teachers through surveys by peers, parents and teachers; and bonuses paid to teachers deemed to be performing exceptionally.

There are huge problems with this. It ignores the fact that teaching cannot be reduced to a simple mechanistic process. If a student's ability at reading and comprehension improves between Years 7 and 9 of high school, who is to be rewarded for this? The Year 7 teacher or the Year 8 or Year 9 teacher? The classmates who worked with the student? The parents who encouraged their children to study? The student? This kind of measurement of teacher proficiency is simplistic and unrealistic.

Payment that is dependent on a peer rating would turn teaching into a popularity contest. More importantly, it would undermine the solidarity among teachers — the true basis of quality education.

In Britain, where teachers have been transformed from colleagues into competitors, afraid and unwilling to share resources with one another, the education system is failing students as well as teachers.

Allowing principals to dole out bonuses to some teachers and not others would likewise lead to a counterproductive culture of competition among teachers.

The AEU's Statement and Background Paper argues that all teachers should receive a professional salary. This has, of course, always been a major aim of teacher unions, and the AEU correctly argues that this is necessary "to ensure that the profession can attract and retain teachers in the numbers required to guarantee a qualified teacher in front of every classroom across the country no matter where it is located".

But the second, and objectionable, aspect of the AEU's proposal is the "further recognition and appropriate reward for demonstrated quality teaching, knowledge, skills and practice".

This would be achieved by having teachers, who wished to do so, apply for a newly created career band (classification) of teachers who are "accomplished".

Teachers who applied for this band would be independently and formally assessed against standards. While this may be better than the Liberals' model, it is still unacceptable. Any move towards dividing teachers into "competent" and "accomplished" bands will produce competitiveness and undermine solidarity in school communities. It is also insulting to public school teachers to suggest that they are not already accomplished educators.

The AEU scheme is a concession to the ideology of performance pay and the market over education. Performance pay is anathema to an equitable public education system: performance pay is inseparable from the ideology that prioritises money over people. An agenda that elevates economic efficiency over educational quality and equity must be rejected. It has no place in a fair system of public education.

[Pat Donohoe is a state councillor of the NSW Teachers Federation, vice-president of Canterbury-Bankstown Teachers Association and a Socialist Alliance activist.]

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