A select number of teachers in NSW will soon be eligible for increased salaries of up to $152,000. This comes at a time when schools across Australia are facing devastating teacher shortages, while dwindling numbers of prospective teachers are pursuing teaching as a career. According to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet, “This is seismic reform that will modernise the teaching profession and ensure we have the best teachers in our classrooms to benefit students for generations to come.”
Will it, though? Fortunately, we have decades of research about the relationship between teacher pay and performance to make some predictions. Unfortunately, the research doesn’t paint a promising picture about what we can expect.
Ultimately, it all comes down to the fact that teaching is a very complex process and something that is very difficult to measure and to reward. Even though additional pay for our ‘best teachers’ seems like a logical way of improving overall teacher quality, this position is full of assumptions that are rarely (if ever) true. Below are some of the most significant assumptions that need to be addressed.
Assumption 1: Bonus pay will increase teacher effort (and quality)
When policymakers claim that pay increases for ‘high-achieving’ teachers will lead to better outcomes, this assumes teachers are motivated by financial incentives. This is an economic argument that assumes teachers make rational choices based on the incentives in front of them. It also means that teachers either choose to be ‘high-achieving’ or not, and that money will be the deciding factor.
Should teachers earn more money? Absolutely. However, when linked to indicators of quality (like ‘high-achieving), I’m always wary of how such decisions are made. The truth is that a lot of factors affect how teachers are classified as effective, regardless of how holistically or carefully such systems are designed. Unfortunately, these measures are not always (if ever) true reflections of a teacher’s quality, which brings us to our next assumption.
Assumption 2: Teacher quality is measurable
To be fair, the current NSW proposal does not rely on the same kind of measurement tools that other countries (like the USA) use to measure teacher quality. Some, including the NSW government, even argue that the reform cannot even be considered ‘performance pay’. I disagree, and I think the reform’s title, Rewarding Excellence in Teaching, supports my assertion.
Therefore, the assumption here is that we can actually know what teacher quality is; we can measure it; and we can reward it. This belief alone is based on many false assumptions. First, quality itself is a slippery construct that experts have been debating for decades. Not only that, but we also know that classifying teachers as ‘high-achieving’ (or not) is always susceptible to several forms of error and bias. For example, we know that teachers who teach students from advantaged backgrounds are more likely to be classified as more effective. We also know that teachers in schools with greater concentrations of disadvantage are more likely to be classified as ineffective. While the NSW reform is not based on test-based teacher evaluation, which is arguably the most susceptible to these biases, there are still concerns about which teachers will ultimately achieve this higher status. We must look at the broader conditions and question whether some teachers will be more likely to miss out, simply because they work in more challenging and unsupportive environments. This, of course, creates new concerns about whether such efforts will actually disincentivise teachers from remaining in already hard-to-staff locations, but that’s an argument for another day.
Assumption 3: Student performance is a direct result of teacher effort and quality
First, I don’t want to suggest that teachers don’t matter when it comes to student learning and achievement. Teachers do matter, and they can make an enormous difference in the lives of students. It is also true, though, that teachers often have much less impact on student achievement (at least as measured by standardised tests) than many would like to assume. To assume that rewarding ‘excellent’ teachers will necessarily lead to better student achievement is simply not true. We do want consistency in classrooms, and we want teachers who are qualified and proficient. But, we cannot lose sight of the fact that students’ performance and achievement are affected by many factors that are entirely outside of the teachers’ or schools’ control. When it comes to standardised tests, for example, most researchers estimate that teacher differences explain anywhere between 1-14% variation in student outcomes. That means that up to 86-99% of variation in student test scores can be explained by other factors, like socio-economic status, parents’ education levels, and other out-of-school conditions. Therefore, if we really care about raising student achievement, then we must broaden our attention to think about how society is supporting student learning and growth. Continuing to narrowly focus on the teacher will not only be inadequate for raising achievement, but it will also continue to over-burden our teachers and force them out of the classroom.
Assumption 4: Pay increases for a small number of teachers will lead to higher retention, and it will attract more teachers to the profession
In my view, this is one of the most peculiar assumptions of the reform. The profession has made it very clear that higher pay and manageable workloads are what they need. These requests are also supported by research. Quasi performance pay is not the answer to either of these. While I always want to celebrate pay increases for teachers, I am yet to be convinced that increases for a few hundred teachers will be what keeps the rest in the profession. If anything, I wonder how this will affect school culture. If teachers must compete for promoted status, then we can reasonably predict schools will suffer from decreased morale and collegiality. Even if it’s not a competitive process, we must be careful in how we balance the additional responsibilities with the increased salary. Otherwise, we run the risk of burning out teachers who are promoted to these advanced positions.
There is still a lot we don’t know about this reform. What I do find hopeful is that teachers and school leaders are involved in developing some of the details. In an ideal world, this collaborative effort will help mitigate some of the concerns I’ve raised. I want to be hopeful. My fear, however, is that we have too many failed cases from around the world that makes it difficult to be optimistic. I hope I’m wrong.
Jessica Holloway is senior research and ARC DECRA Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. Her research draws on political theory and policy sociology to investigate: (1) how metrics, data and digital tools produce new conditions, practices and subjectivities, especially as this relates to teachers and schools, and (2) how teachers and schools are positioned to respond to the evolving and emerging needs of their communities.
Header photo from the Premier’s Facebook page