Read Jim Belshaw on “Problems with Performance Pay”

25 Feb


My gut is against the idea, as you may already know, and I further am amazed that an educational practice discredited in the nineteenth century — or something very like it — is suddenly the latest “best practice” according to the vapid (and possibly historically illiterate) Julie Bishop. See Payment by Results: An Example of Assessment in Elementary Education from Nineteenth Century Britain by Brendan A. Rapple in EDUCATION POLICY ANALYSIS ARCHIVES Volume 2 Number 1 January 5, 1994.

… Particular emphasis is focused on the economic market-driven aspect of the system whereby every pupil was examined annually by an Inspector, the amount of the governmental grant being largely dependent on the answering. I argue that this was a narrow, restrictive system of educational accountability though one totally in keeping with the age’s pervasive utilitarian belief in laissez-faire. I conclude by observing that this Victorian system might be suggestive to us today when calls for analogous schemes of educational accountability are shrill… I believe that it was a system essentially misguided, anti-educational, illiberal, and one which for the most part remained throughout its 35 year reign true to its mean-spirited, expediency-stressing beginnings.

…Payment by results was a narrow, restrictive, Philistine system of educational accountability which impeded for the second half of the nineteenth century any hope that England’s elementary education might swiftly advance from its generally appalling condition during the first half of the century when the theories and practices scorned in the likes of Dicken’s Hard Times were more the norm than the exception… Certainly, calls for economic efficiency and teacher accountability in both Canadian and American public schools are increasingly shrill today. At any rate, I believe that a study of a national, long-lasting, and very thorough system of accountability by the state, whose main goal was to ensure a good return on governmental expenditure, might provide at least a broader perspective with which to contemplate the multifarious educational problems pervasive in today’s society. At the very least such a study may indicate some egregious past errors and be suggestive in our avoidance of, mutatis mutandis, similar mistakes. Finally, if indeed it is possible to point a simple moral from this dismal episode in England’s educational history, perhaps it is that true accountability in education should not be facilely linked to mechanical examination results, for there is a very distinct danger that the pedagogical methods employed to attain those results will themselves be mechanical and the education of children will be so much the worse.

Jim’s discussion is more measured than I have chosen to be. Read Problems with Performance Pay. He has posted it in his professional rather than his personal blog too, and his case is all the more powerful, in my view, because he confesses that he was once a fan and his analysis (unlike some of mine) cannot be dismissed as a “rant”.

I should make my personal position clear. Twenty years ago I supported performance based pay. I no longer do so except in narrowly defined circumstances. My own experience with the practical application of performance based pay has been negative. One of the problems with performance based pay is that it all seems so intuitively sensible. After all, shouldn’t we reward people for relative contribution, thus motivating them them to do better?

Thus in the Australian case Julie Bishop argues the need to reward the better teachers, in so doing increasing the maximum amount that teachers can get, attracting more people to the profession. Now I have no necessary brief for the way that teachers in public schools are currently paid, but I do think the the Minister’s proposals are likely to have perverse results.

I can foresee possibilities of interesting forms of corruption too; stats could be arranged, or classroom practices “fine-tuned”, to generate the best “outcomes” (financially) for teachers involved.

On the other hand I have nothing against incentives to take on difficult posts, or to motivate teachers undertaking further professional study. That is something government and teachers’ unions really do need to look at, not to mention adequate infrastructure funding, better support for inservice training, and more realistic workplace demands… There is much to do, but Bishop and company seem to me to be looking in all the wrong places and listening to all the wrong people.


See Arthur’s On teaching and performance pay and (thanks to Arthur) Background Briefing from Radio National. I had missed it and it is devastating stuff. Only a complete goose would support Bishop’s cracked American dreamings after listening to that program, but geese have been honking in Canberra for the past decade. Even Alan Jones doubts the practicability and wisdom of this misconceived approach from one of the least commendable education systems (sorry, Americans, but with exceptions, obviously, it is true — especially since Bush and company have screwed it even further) in the developed world.

Lest I appear anti-American, I should also say that some of the best research on my subject areas, English, Language Arts, and TESOL, does come from the USA. The stream of “reform” Bishop is so fond of is not among the proudest educational achievements of the USA, does not deserve to be exported, and is often dodgy in the extreme, as Background Briefing makes very clear.

Monday update

I just found another good discussion by Ken Lovell on The Road to Surfdom: Performance-based teaching.

…A typical management fad in other words: it’s a magic pudding that solves all sorts of problems at negligible cost just by adopting a new strategy (a bit like ‘the Surge’, in fact). Like most fads it’s actually been around for ages: they used to call it a ‘bonus scheme’ but re-christening it lets people write books about it as if it’s something new and makes them a shitload of money running conferences. Unfortunately there’s little evidence that it would have the benefits claimed for it, there are strong theoretical grounds for believing it would actually have adverse consequences on educational outcomes, and far from being comparatively costless it would require hugely expensive new administrative overheads…

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One response to “Read Jim Belshaw on “Problems with Performance Pay”

  1. AV

    February 26, 2007 at 1:08 am

    Jones was a teacher himself, and would be expected to adopt a more nuanced view of what makes a good teacher than that taken by Bishop and her fellow ideologues.

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