Will paying top teachers more help pupils?

JIM TRAUE
Last updated 08:42 03/03/2014

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The Government's plan to pay its best teachers more will lift pupil performance among those already doing well, according to JIM TRAUE.

Despite some pointed criticism (it won't work) from educational experts in the universities, the new education policies announced by the Prime Minister recently will result in improved performances by many pupils in many of our schools.

PISA - Programme for International Student Assessment - scores are likely to improve and our international ranking will climb in the next five years. If they don't, about 12 per cent of the teaching workforce receiving extra pay to improve pupils' performance will be in for a caning.

By improving the linkages between schools so that best teaching practices can be more easily shared, a first step has been taken to try to repair the damage done by Tomorrow's Schools, the last big faith-based educational adventure in New Zealand.

The extraordinary degree of autonomy imposed on schools created isolated stockades busy defending themselves against competitors in the new marketplace. This severely limited the information that had flowed freely between schools through the strong centralised networks established by the Department of Education.

There are more effective but more expensive, means of re-establishing the links essential to stimulating better teaching practice but in these hard times we may have to settle for the third or fourth best.

But we should be clear about who will benefit the most.

The Ministry of Education on its website poses the question, "Why is this initiative needed?", and answers, "We want to raise achievement in our schools for five out of five young New Zealanders. Our top students are doing as well as students anywhere else in the world but there is a big gap between our top performing students and those who aren't doing so well. We must do better and raise achievement across the board".

Back in 2012, Education Minister Hekia Parata, in floating policies for investing in better teachers and the rewarding of outstanding teachers, possibly through performance pay, also asserted that the problem she was addressing was the 20 per cent in the under-performing tail and her objective to get five out of five succeeding at school.

This objective is a by-product of the same stable as George W Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation of 2001 with its impossible goal of 100 per cent proficiency by 2014. Both look like it and smell like it, so you can be assured it is.

We have been salting this under-performing tail for the past 30 years with an array of misdirected or ineffectual policies. Think of Tomorrow's Schools, discovery learning, teaching how to learn. Some, despite the best of intentions, have widened the gap.

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Those who come from a stable supportive home, where books and reading and conversation with adults is the norm, backed up by intensive pre-school enrichment of the brain, have developed the intellectual capital to make the most of better teaching.

According to Robert Putnam, the American sociologist, well-off families in the US are now spending 11 times more than the working class on "children's enrichment activities"outside the classroom. Those who have had little adult conversation at home, have never been read to, and have never seen a book until they arrived at school, will fall even further behind.

You don't need an advanced degree in mathematics to work out that even if all pupils made the same gains it would not close the present achievement gap.

Nor that teachers keen to keep their extra rewards, or aspiring to gain a reward, will concentrate on pupils in the middle likely to show the biggest improvement, not on the disengaged at the bottom who present the toughest challenge. Nor that teachers will look enviously at the example of the dairy farmers who can raise their herds' performance by consigning the poor performers to hamburger fillings.

If after three years the real world doesn't measure up to the ideology, that the schools are at fault and they alone can close the achievement gap, the teachers hand picked to lead the revolution will not only be punished financially by losing between $10,000 and $50,000 a year but will feel the heavy hand of the furious theorists who knew all along that the teachers and not the theory were at fault.

Faced with these threats teachers will produce miracles, more likely of the kind associated with stage magicians.

Jim Traue lectured in librarianship at Victoria University of Wellington and former chief librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

- The Press

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