Performance pay talk for teachers is flawed

There has been a lot of rhetoric around the importance of quality teaching and how best to recognise and reward those teachers who are seen to be making a difference.

Firstly, while teacher quality is very important, teacher quality alone cannot raise student achievement. Secondly there is no evidence that tying teacher pay to performance, based on student test results, does anything to raise student outcomes or create better learning environments for them.

The biggest problem is how do you measure teacher performance? How do you assess the teacher with a bright motivated group of students against another teacher who has a class with several disruptive students? One teacher may in fact be putting in more effort and accomplishing more educationally, but the other would be receiving more money based on student outcomes.

It's not a factory production line. Children don't necessarily learn in a neat linear progression through the years. A student's achievement in one year cannot necessarily be pinned solely on the performance of that year's teacher.

Student achievement and a teacher's effectiveness can be undermined by so many different factors which children bring with them to the school gate. Factors such as their level of early childhood education, the effect of previous teachers, their health status, their home life and the level of parental learning support they receive.

The number of variables makes judging teacher performance on annual student achievement a complex task and an inaccurate science.

Australian academic and educational statistician Margaret Wu, who has just visited New Zealand, says we need many years of student achievement data - more than 10 years - to be accurate in measuring individual teacher effectiveness.

She quotes data out of the United States on error rates in measuring teacher and school performance based on student test score gains (National Centre on Education and the Economy report, 2010, USA). It found that over one year of analysing student achievement, one in three teachers were mis-identified as very effective or ineffective.

Her research also shows that there can be a large margin of error in student test results and wide variation in the ability of students in any one class. That means that more often than not, those test results do not give an accurate picture of how effective a teacher is or how they are performing.

A cautionary tale out of New York proves the point. The Education Department recently released a ranking list of thousands of New York teachers based on student test scores, which the New York Post then publicised. Pascale Mauclair was at the bottom of that list and was subsequently vilified as the city's worst teacher.

The reality is that Pascale Mauclair is actually a very experienced and much- admired English-as-a-second-language teacher working with new immigrant students at one of the city's strongest primary schools. The school principal praised her as an excellent teacher.

It's a situation we could easily see in New Zealand, particularly if National Standards are used as the basis for any performance pay system.

The standards are inconsistent and are being implemented differently across the country, meaning there is nothing national about them. Using them to judge teacher performance would paint a very warped picture indeed and we would have a situation where not only were children being labelled unfairly by the standards, but teachers as well.

Another potential danger is that performance pay can affect the way teachers approach students who are under-achievers or difficult to teach, and result in too much focus being put on areas of the curriculum covered by assessment and testing.

Performance pay systems can also result in teachers competing with each other, distorting learning by "teaching to the test" and putting test results ahead of a child's well-being and overall learning potential. Teaching is a job where people need to work together, not compete for reward, recognition or ranking.

New Zealand teachers are always ambitious to do better, and relative to other Western countries, we spend less on teachers in terms of salaries, but get more "bang for our buck" with our world-leading student results in international surveys like Pisa.

What we want is a pay system that keeps our best teachers in the classroom and that recognises their skills, knowledge and expertise in a fair and professional way.

We want to focus on recruiting the best teachers we can, keeping them learning throughout their careers, and making sure teaching is seen as a highly valued job. Ian Leckie is president of the teachers' union, the NZEI.

Ian Leckie is the president of the teachers' union, the NZEI

The Dominion Post