Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing.

abandoned chairs

source: @MichaelGaida on pixabay

This week, New South Wales MP Mark Latham, of the Australian One Nation party, discussed the One Nation NSW education policy. The policy uses language like “embarrassing” to describe Australia’s performance on PISA testing, as well as constructing teachers as “substandard” and “underperforming”, arguing that many should be reported and “removed”. It states that “what gets measures [sic] gets done”. It advocates for introducing performance-based pay for teachers, based on measuring teacher performance; “for example, testing a class at the beginning and end of the year and assessing the improvement (or regression) in results over the 10-month period.” Of course, measuring so-called teacher effectiveness is notoriously unreliable and a teacher’s influence on the students in their care is multifaceted. Check out the Twitter hashtag #OurWorkCannotBeMeasured through which teachers describe student progress or teacher work that cannot be quantified through an oversimplified performance measure.

On Thursday, as a result of an article I wrote for The Conversation back in 2016 on performance pay for teachers, I was invited to comment on ABC New South Wales radio about Mr Latham’s proposal. The interview is online here, at about the 2 hour and 7 minute mark. I explained during the interview that performance pay for teachers has no evidence for improving student achievement. Rather, merit-based pay is damaging. It creates toxic cultures of fear, isolation and competition. It leads to reduced collegiality and collaboration, less innovation, exacerbated wellbeing issues and the dehumanisation of teachers and students to data points.

During the interview I was asked, “What will fix all these problems we have in our education system?” My response was that “while there are issues, part of the problem is this notion that the education system needs fixing, that the system is broken, that schools and teachers are failing and we need to fix them. We have excellent teachers doing incredible work in our schools. Part of what is going to help the system is trusting teachers to do their jobs and providing trust, support, resourcing and time, instead of punishments, rewards and accusations.”

The experience of this brief radio interview—squeezed into the school day in between lessons and meetings in the last week of Term 2—led me to reflect on themes in my upcoming book. Titled Transformational professional learning: Making a difference in schools, it includes chapters on collaboration, mentoring, coaching, self-directed learning, professional standards and leadership for professional learning.

When people ask me what my book is about I say, “professional learning for teachers and school leaders” (usually followed by a tongue-in-cheek “it’s a real page-turner”). It is about that, but it is also about significantly more.

My book is about trusting and supporting the profession through meaningful opportunities to grow. It is about why, how and on what education stakeholders can best spend time, money and resources, for positive outcomes. It is about treating those working in schools as professionals who are experts in their work but who can always improve, not because they are deficient, but because their work is complex and entangled with identities, relationships, society and humanity. It is about policy that takes the long view rather than aiming for quick wins, and about leadership that empowers rather than inspects or punishes.

It is about nurturing collaboration and collegiality, over surveillance and isolation. It is about those things that systems and organisations can do to develop the capacity of those within the system. It is about how to build productive organisational cultures that simultaneously value, honour and sustain each individual and the group as a whole. It is about meaningfully considering workload and wellbeing, so that teachers and school leaders can best serve their students and communities without sacrificing themselves, burning out or taking shortcuts to stay afloat. These themes are relevant to other organisations and systems, too, not just to education.

When I reflect on my upcoming book, one of its central messages is this:

Education is not broken. Teachers do not need fixing. There is outstanding work going on every day in schools around Australia and the world. We should focus on trusting and empowering the teaching profession.


Performance pay: Don’t do it, Australia

Today the Australian media has reported that the Federal government is going to spend an extra $1.2 billion on education between 2018-2020, but that part of this money will go towards linking teacher pay to performance.

I am writing to urge Australia not to spend precious education budget money on teacher performance pay.

Performance pay initiatives have been experimented with around the world, including in Nashville, New York City, Dallas, North Carolina, Michigan, Israel, England, Kenya and India. See Leigh’s (2013) “The economics and politics of teacher merit pay,” which argues that merit pay negatively impacts teacher collegiality. Hattie, in his 2015 papers on what works and what doesn’t work in education, says that performance pay results in teachers working fewer hours with more stress and less enthusiasm. I agree with his warnings against trying to fix people and systems, and his suggestions that instead that the focus be on growth and collaboration.

Performance pay alienates teachers and is unsupported by evidence. There are those such as Hargreaves and Fullan (in their 2012 Professional capital) who criticise performance pay as demeaning, commodifiying and oversimplifying teaching and education. Until now I have been relieved that Australia has not gone the route of many North American states with teacher evaluation models that score teachers and schools. (I voiced my despair at the New York APPR reforms when they were announced.) Fullan and Quinn (in their 2016 Coherence) note that a policy focus on punitive accountability measures is crude, demotivating and has no chance of working. Wiliam (in his 2014 paper “The formative evaluation of teaching performance”) sees measures of teacher effectiveness as unreliable, noting that when teacher performance measures are linked to job or financial decisions, teachers are unlikely to innovate, tending instead to performance-teach to the evaluation. Also importantly, as Kemmis notes (in his 2010 chapter “What is professional practice?”), the quality of teaching and of teachers is not measurable by tests. So performance pay pits teachers against each other around questionable metrics.

These views are consistent with work around motivation, such as that by Dan Pink, David Rock and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Punishments and rewards don’t improve practice.

Negative drivers of change are ineffective in driving positive transformation. What Australia doesn’t need is to cultivate cultures of fear, competition and compliance in our schools. We need to invest in teachers and in education (a thousand times, yes!), but performance pay which alienates the profession and is ineffective in improving it, is not the way to go. We need collaboration, not compliance and competition. We need initiatives that trust and encourage teachers and principals to grow their practices and their schools. Australian educators need voice, agency and support to improve, not punitive sticks and accountability carrots.

Please, Australia, say ‘no’ to performance pay.


Update: Since publishing this blog post I have written this piece on performance pay for teachers for The Conversation. I was also interviewed on Sydney radio station 2SER about this issue. You can listen here.

On the day I wrote this post, other grass roots education commentators have also reacted to today’s education funding announcements. Here is a list …

Joel Alexander: Merit pay in primary school is about as bad as it gets

Jon Andrews: Cruel optimism – Pay, performance and promises

Greg Ashman: How should Labor respond to the Australian government’s education proposals?

TER podcast with Cameron Malcher and Corinne Campbell: School funding special