teachers' pay

Why performance pay will never fix the disastrous teaching crisis

The NSW teaching profession is currently in crisis. However, recent education reform announcements to address the crisis miss the mark. Teacher workloads have reached unsustainable levels. Our survey research of over 18,000 NSW public sector teachers showed that teachers are now working an average of 55 hours per week. Increased data collection requirements, constant curriculum and policy changes, and more complex student needs have contributed to this.

Most teachers responding to the survey (91%) reported that administrative demands impacted their core work of teaching. Teachers coped with the challenges of this significant administrative load by working longer hours.

Findings from an Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession chaired by Emeritus Professor Geoff Gallop released in February 2021 found that, in recent decades, there had been a significant increase in the volume and complexity of teachers’ work. But there was a decline in the relative position of teacher salaries compared to that of other professions. Meanwhile the state is facing a worsening teacher shortage which is only contributing to workload problems. 

Stalling award negotiations over issues of pay and workload have triggered months of industrial unrest in the state’s education system.

Is performance pay the answer?

In a bid to ‘modernise’ the state’s education system, Premier Dominic Perrottet recently announced proposed changes to NSW school education. This suite of changes would introduce performance-based pay for teachers, which it is claimed will ‘excel and drive better results for kids’, reduce the amount of administrative work that teachers do, and change school hours.

Under current pay arrangements, teachers typically receive pay increases based on their length of service in the profession and attainment of professional standards. However, salary growth for teachers slows over time

While details of the Premier’s plan for performance-based pay are not yet known, discussions around linking pay to teachers’ performance in Australia – and worldwide – are not new

Performance-based pay schemes have been introduced in countries like the USA – such as President Bush’s Teacher Incentive Fund for states and school districts that chose to introduce merit pay schemes – as well others like China, England, Sweden and Singapore. In Australia, there has also been a long discussion about revitalising teacher pay schemes to attract and retain the best teachers in the profession. Just 5 years ago, measures to pay teachers for performance were also announced by Simon Birmingham as Federal Minister for Education.

Proponents of performance pay commonly argue that it is fairer to reward high-performing teachers than pay all teachers equally, that it motivates teachers, and raises the quality and accountability of teachers. But the weight of evidence to support performance-based pay is lacking. Experts in this area argue that it creates competition between teachers, negatively impacts teacher collegiality, and creates a culture of fear and isolation rather than growth and collaboration in schools. Evaluating teachers’ performance is also highly complex. 

Those against performance-based pay argue that it is difficult to quantify success in a classroom because there are so many elements to it. Scholars have noted how any single measure, such as measurement of student achievement on standardised tests, cannot be a reliable basis for making performance-related decisions about the efforts of individual teachers. Context is also important. Evidence also shows that such schemes are not effective in improving student achievement. At the heart is also a broader conversation about the need for education reform to move away from a focus on performativity and narrow accountability measures.

The Independent Inquiry into the NSW Teaching Profession – with expert witnesses and over 1000 submissions from teachers and schools – also didn’t recommend performance-based pay as a solution to the complex issues urgently facing the teaching profession. 

The solutions to the teaching crisis are clear

A wealth of evidence is clear about the solutions needed to address the multiple crises facing the NSW teaching profession. Conversations about performance-based pay detract from the real issues facing the profession. We’ve written previously that there appears to be a disconnect between teacher workforces across Australia and the policymakers with power over their conditions. Through imposing a new, divisive pay scheme, the Premier reinforces rather than removes these divisions. 

Dominic Perrottet has stated he wants to be known as the ‘Education Premier’, but this will require deeper, more effective steps and genuine engagement with teachers.

The frustration of teachers around issues of pay, workload and shortages has boiled over into industrial unrest since late 2021. It was recently announced by the state teachers’ union that NSW state teachers would participate in another 24-hour strike on 30 June. What is different from earlier strike action is that Catholic school teachers will join them. The last time both unions took joint action was over 25 years ago in 1996 when John Aquilina was NSW Minister for Education. This signals problems in the NSW teaching profession are spreading deep and broad.

Meaningful reform in education should be focused on listening to and supporting teachers, giving teachers the time to collaborate with others, reducing unnecessary administrative burdens, ensuring salaries are competitive, addressing the worsening teacher shortage, and appreciating the integral and vital role that teachers play in our communities and for society.

Mihajla Gavin is a lecturer in the Business School at the University of Technology Sydney, and has worked as a senior officer in the public sector in Australia across various workplace relations advisory, policy and project roles. Mihajla’s research is concerned with analysing the response of teacher unions to neoliberal education reform that has affected teachers’ conditions of work. Mihajla is on Twitter @Mihajla_Gavin

Susan McGrath-Champ is Professor in the Work and Organisational Studies Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School, Australia. Her research includes the geographical aspects of the world of work, employment relations and international human resource management. Recent studies include those of school teachers’ work and working conditions.