The prospect of rewarding high performing school teachers with performance-based pay is an evergreen issue that has recently re-entered public debate. In light of declining national student results in international testing, and concerns about whether entry standards for prospective teachers are high enough, many educators, commentators and policymakers are asking what needs to be done to lift these results, and in the process reward the high achievers in the profession.
In the New South Wales Parliament One Nation MP Mark Latham recently floated the idea, asking: "Why aren't the best teachers, [who are] adding value in the classroom, given performance bonuses for their magnificent contribution?"
Mr Latham is now heading up a parliamentary committee looking into this and other issues in the state’s education system, with a view to improving student results and investigating how rewarding high performing schools with funding incentives could help drive best practice and improved results.
Education Review sat down with Mr Latham at NSW Parliament House to get his thoughts on why performance pay for teachers is a good idea, how he sees the idea working in practice, and the impact he sees these changes having on student results.
ER: Despite record investment in education, the establishment of a national testing program and global research into evidence-based practice, Australian students' literacy and numeracy levels continue to slide. What do you attribute this to?
ML: Well, it's the central paradox in education policy that around the world there have been tests and studies of everything that's ever been tried in the classroom. And through the work of John Hattie in particular, we've got a pretty good handle on what works very well in the classroom and what achieves mediocre results.
So we know the things that should be happening in the classroom, but there appears to be a lack of discipline in the overall system to move schools in that direction. And I think what happens is that some schools out of desperation say there's a problem with behaviour in the classroom. They try fad or experimental programs just to achieve some small pieces of progress, but it's not supported by the data. They might be fads and experimental programs that have been tried overseas or in other states, and they just don't work. They don't achieve the high-level results we're after.
So I think this problem of ‘fad-ism’ in the education system is real and it's part of the reason why results slide. For instance, you mentioned literacy in the question. There's no doubt that Hattie's work shows that phonics teaching gets a better result than whole word, but we've still got schools that practice the whole word methods in the classroom. I visited one earlier this month in south-west Sydney. It's amazing to think that having had the research about what works in reading in the classroom, we still haven't got schools universally going down the path of explicit teaching of phonics.
Now, what do you do about that? Well, I think school autonomy – enabling them to make their own decisions about what works for them – has got to be part of the system. You can’t have one big Soviet Union-style bureaucracy running every school from the centre of Sydney. That's not feasible in new South Wales given the number of schools.
I think you need funding incentives that drive schools in the right direction. You also need central support to let them know the things that work. In Victoria they've got a very good document called HITS – high impact teaching strategies – and I don’t think we've got the equivalent here in New South Wales. But the main thing is that if a school is adopting best practice in the classroom, the things that work and get best results and show up in their classroom results for their students in a range of measures – then that school should be rewarded. Growth funding should come their way.
I don't think any school should be worse off, but the system now is awash with Gonski growth money. And one of the things we are doing in our upper house committee that is investigating measurement and outcomes is to look at how you can reward schools, and have an allocation of funding for those that are achieving the best results. So right across the system, schools can have autonomy, but also an incentive in the funding system to get the best practice.
Do you think ATAR entry scores for teaching need to be higher? Many academics have pushed back against this idea, arguing that the focus should be on better teaching, not better teachers. Do you think that argument has weight?
I think it has some weight, but at the same time I can't believe that people who failed at school are going to have the right stuff to go on to be teachers: to go back into the school system and get better results than they themselves achieved.
I think failing an ATAR should be a disqualification from going into the teaching profession. And I think that's common sense, but I think it's going to be interesting to see what happens in the New South Wales system because they've gone to this 70 per cent grade point average. So these are higher achieving ATAR people, they've got 70 per cent and have credit or higher achievement going through the university teaching courses, and they come into the New South Wales system as of next year. So there is an improvement. Our one nation policy was 70 per cent ATAR, 70 per cent grade point average going through university.
I think that's the foundation stone for getting the best quality people into the teaching profession. But I also think it's true that a teacher coming into the classroom in the first couple of years will learn more there than they learned at university.
So, to this argument about moulding. Can you mould them? Well, I think you can do both. I think you need a platform of good quality people going into teaching. And I think the 70-70 rule achieves that. And once in the classroom you want ongoing classroom-based professional development.
In most of our disadvantaged schools in New South Wales we have instructional teachers: so two teachers in the classroom for a good part of the time. It’s professional development in the classroom situation, it's not going off to do some course. The new teachers are learning and moulding and improving from that early classroom experience. So I think you need to do all of that to get the best future outcomes. It's not one or the other.
You're a supporter of performance pay for teachers and funding for schools that improve their results. Some believe this will create a hyper-competitive environment where data is potentially fudged. What do you say to this, and how could this be successfully managed?
I think it's important to recognise we have very limited performance pay for teachers now. There's an exceptional teachers program in New South Wales. People apply for it and they don't get a lot; actually I think it's ridiculous, they only get about an extra $5,000 dollars a year. But there is an attempt in New South Wales on a limited scale to financially reward the better teachers under that program.
So this is not a foreign concept, but I believe that measurement and funding incentives – so the best teachers get the biggest reward – would produce better school results. It must be demoralising for a teacher to think: “I know I'm getting great results here in this classroom. We started the year at a certain level and now we're 50 or 60 per cent better. The teacher is not getting the results over on the other side of the quadrangle, he's not putting in the effort, and gets the same pay as me.”
I think there's a demoralising element there if you get the same amount of money regardless of performance. And I think rewarding performance means measuring results at the beginning of the year in a classroom, then measuring results at the end of the year, and that's the value added. We're not talking about how the teacher got lucky because they're all smart kids, it’s about value added in performance over the year.
In terms of data being fudged, well these would be standardised tests coming out of the department of education at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, and be a measure of the value added. And we've also got NAPLAN, which is hard to fudge because it's a centralised test out of their hands.
So I think there are a range of classroom measures and outcomes that can be judged, and we want to reward the very best teachers because they're doing a great job, and we want all teachers to get performance pay don't we? For those who aren't achieving results it’s also a sign that perhaps they're better off in a different job. But if the class is going backwards, parents need to know that, the system needs to know that and take corrective action.
Secondary Principal's Council president Chris Preslin said the complication for teacher bonuses was determining how you judge what a good teacher is. Do you think this is valid, and how would you determine which teachers deserve a bonus?
I think it's a disappointing comment because out there in the reality of the school environment, every member of this secondary principals council would be able to say in private conversation that: “These are my best teachers in the school, and these are the ones that are struggling.” Now, I think that's just reality, and that's the same in any workplace. Any person in charge of staff makes a judgement about how they're going. The school principals know this based on internal assessment and proven record – a teacher who year by year just keeps lifting the class up above and beyond others.
I think you would also want the advice of principals about the high performing teachers, and they get the performance pay along those lines as well. So it's a combination of things, but I can't believe that Chris Preslin would think for a moment that the principals out there in schools don't know who's a good teacher and who's not. That in itself would be very distressing.
We recently interviewed professor Debra Hayes from the University of Sydney who expressed a concern that performance pay incentives could erode the collegial aspects of the profession. Do you see that as a potential problem?
Well, I don't really. I find it a strange criticism because wouldn't you expect that if there's 30 teachers in a school and they're all eligible for performance pay, they’d all be helping each other to achieve 30 out of 30? I think the collegial attitude would be: "As a school we get better results for our students, we get better rewards professionally as teachers, and let's all work together, share expertise and programs."
Again, you want a system where there are incentives built in for teachers that really get results in the classroom. It’s great for the students, great for the school and great for the teachers because they get some performance pay.
So that drive for everyone to lift up is crucial, I think. I'd like to think that that's how the system would respond. I think you've got two mechanisms to drive improved performance. One is school-based measurement and funding of better outcomes or growth money as mentioned, and the other is individual teachers being eligible for performance pay. And I think in the school they'd all like to think: “Well, we've got 30 teachers here, and the 30 qualified. How great is that?”Do you have an idea for a story?
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