Teacher Poppie Johnson examines performance pay, teacher appraisals and asks: what should New Zealanders be demanding for their education tax dollars? 

In my almost 10 years as a teacher I’ve seen most of what goes on in a secondary school. I’ve been a dean, head of department and held myriad other responsibilities that come up on an annual basis. I’m experienced but not yet so established that I’m an institution in my own right. It’s the sweet spot, young enough to still connect easily but with enough nous to knock any nonsense on the head and still manage to get my point across.

As a teacher, there’s a few things you swiftly learn not to mention in the staff room. They’re the big dividers, the ones that cause uproar and turn normally placid bespectacled science teachers into demagogues and dramatic English teachers into seething balls of rage. Top of the list? Performance pay.

Both the primary and secondary teachers’ collective agreements are up. They get re-negotiated every three years and this cycle both NZEI (primary union) and the PPTA (secondary union) are looking for significant increases in the region of 15 percent. The vast majority of teachers belong to one of those two unions. Those that don’t sign an individual agreement that is bound by the same conditions as the collective. So whatever gets negotiated and agreed will apply to all state school teachers.

There’s been a lot of media coverage about how hard teachers work, the worth of the job, how we need to value them and how these pay rises are overdue. It is a job that requires a lot of commitment, some will work harder than others and some will work smarter and get more done in a shorter amount of time. That’s the nature of most professions. The negotiation seems to be mostly around how much the increases will be, over what length of time, and at what levels. There’s also some talk around release time and extra resourcing for our most needy.

Performance pay is like the bogey man. No one on either side seems to want to mention it. It gets slotted into the ‘too hard’ basket and rapidly washed away. The generalisation that usually gets trotted out first is something along the lines of ‘performance equals test scores so it’s not fair to base pay on it because of socioeconomic diversity’. While it may be true that achievement rates are higher in higher decile areas with more support systems and fewer material challenges in place for students, test scores alone are far from the only way to measure success.

The really tricky thing about performance pay for teachers is that there are simply too many variables. The NZ Initiative, a non-partisan think tank, has done significant and detailed research into other successful initiatives, most notably in Washington DC. It’s worth reading, here.

There’s an interesting corollary though. PISA looked into the relationship of pay to performance across the OECD in 2012. There’s a distinct relationship between the base level of pay and how effective incentivisation is. Those countries with a lower base pay rate when compared relative to the GDP per capita saw significant gains with performance initiatives introduced. The inverse was also true with minimal gains for countries where the pay rate was, relatively, higher. The United States and France, two case studies frequently mentioned in the case for performance pay, have a low base pay rate. Although it may surprise some, New Zealand teachers are (even now) relatively well paid. It’s slipping, but we still sit above the UK, Australia, and even the much-lauded Scandanavian countries of Finland, Denmark and Norway.

So, performance pay may not be the golden bullet for our context. There’s more to it than that though. Given where our teachers’ pay sits relative to our GDP the best option is, perhaps counterintuitively, to pay teachers more. Alongside that though we need to implement a framework that ensures robust appraisals, not merely box ticking exercises. If we pay teachers more, then they need to be accountable – as are any professionals. And that appraisal system is the nub of the matter. The best teacher in the school could have a class of students that ‘failed’ assessments. Perhaps they were students who never turned up to school before, who hadn’t learned to write properly for years and now are attempting, and progressing. The trouble lies in the many many ‘perhapses’ that exist. Student performance is no accurate measure of teacher performance. Progress is a different matter. Increasingly, that is why schools measure progress and achievement. They’re two different things.

Teacher appraisals. It’s a requirement for each teacher to do them every year. If they are ‘passed’ then teachers move up to the next level of the pay scale. There are eight levels so once you top out that doesn’t apply. The thing is, what happens if they’re not that rigorous? What happens if a teacher is mediocre at best but expecting to go up a step? It would take a hard-hearted head of department or principal to withhold it. That’s just not the done thing.

No matter how hard the school tries to make them innovative, responsive or modern, I can’t recall having ever heard of a teacher who didn’t progress to the next level. Ever. They are a measure of accountability, but a lacklustre appraisal doesn’t have any lasting impact. Appraisals are completed at the end of the year, when summer holidays are looming and the year is done. They become an exercise, to be completed with some modicum of diligence, but no real belief in any consequences. I know of more than one teacher who didn’t get around to completing the paperwork until midway through the next year.

You should demand more of us as teachers. You should expect excellence. You should never feel as though you have to settle where your children’s education is concerned. It shouldn’t matter who your kids ‘get’ for science or maths or English in any given year.

Like it or not, there is a direct correlation between pay and quality. Given the choice between a lawyer that cost $50 an hour and one that cost $500 an hour, most people would go for the latter on the assumption that they are better, more experienced and will offer a more thorough service. They’d be right. The bottom line is that what we pay people says far more than what their bank balance is. It says what their status is in society, how we value them, how we consider them professionals with long-term career prospects.

Naysayers would argue that teachers already work hard, give their utmost and go above and beyond, that there’s nothing left to give. For many, that is true, they are the outstanding teachers who we desperately want to retain in the classroom. They’re also the ones most attractive to other industry. They deserve more pay. The thing is, they won’t have to change anything. They already deliver an exemplary education to their students. Where accountability would strike the most is with those who don’t strive for excellence, for those who settle for ‘just enough’, who are jaded, disillusioned, or never passionate about education in the first place. The choice would be simple: improve, or find another career. Teaching would be a place for the passionate, the elite, the dedicated and determined, with no space for passengers.

So pay teachers more. Give them class sizes that are manageable and support them to become expert practitioners and leaders in developing curricula. These are the enablers. Don’t make it a gift though. Expect the best from us. Expect excellence in every classroom, every day, for every student.

Poppie Johnson is a Queenstown-based freelance writer and secondary school English teacher who comments on social issues.

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