Merit-based pay would shortchange education

The recent OECD report to the Australian government included a recommendation that Australian teachers' pay should be “boosted” and linked to career structures and standards. This should not be regarded as approval for the Federal Government policy to introduce ‘bonuses’ for individual teachers deemed to be outstanding. Such a scheme is yet another example of the fallacy that strategies from the business world can shape successful education policy.

First, to suggest singling out a small number of teachers for additional salary bonuses shortchanges the profession. It is fair to say that all current salary structures and conditions for teachers need to be carefully examined given the ongoing intensification of their work over the past four decades. It seems self-evident that the most effective way to recognise the complex and sophisticated roles teachers play in the education of our children should be acknowledged by higher salaries across all levels of the profession.

Providing a ‘bonus’ for teachers for so-called ‘merit’ demonstrates a lack of understanding of the collegial and cooperative nature of the teaching profession. Teachers build on each other’s work, so such proposals would compromise the cooperation that effective teachers develop with others on their grade, and stage, and school. The most effective schools have whole school shared goals and visions. A kindergarten teacher lays the foundation with students that subsequent teachers build on – all the way to the final year of school and beyond. Special-education teachers, TESOL specialists, language teachers and school librarians work alongside classroom teachers to meet the needs of individual learners. How, therefore, can any teacher be judged in isolation?

Such proposals are not new: they have been advanced as a way of improving schools and student performance since the 1920s. In most cases where they have been trialled overseas, they have been costly and have produced, at best, very mixed outcomes. Also, as a consequence, unnatural and unhelpful competitive boundaries have been created in schools and between teachers. Australia needs to learn from these previous attempts rather than re-create them and perhaps explore ways that collegial goals and achievements can be recognised and celebrated.

It would be preferable to link increases in teacher salary to achievement of advanced professional standards. This may be a more effective way to recognise that professional learning enhances teacher quality.

Finding ways to address the attrition of high-quality teachers is imperative if we are to continue to improve the life chances of all children. But suggestions such as discretionary bonuses for some actually distract teachers from working with the children in all grades and stages of education who need our attention, energy and expertise if they are to cope with the demands of the 21st century.

– Robyn Ewing
4 November 2011