Carrots and sticks for teachers?

Rose Patterson
Insights Newsletter
5 September, 2014

Should teachers be paid on their students’ NCEA achievement or National Standards results? Should they be let go if they can’t get their results up to scratch?

The short answer is no, absolutely not.

A damning report of test-based accountability systems has just been released in the U.S. by Mark Tucker, the director of the National Center on Education and the Economy.

He claims that in the last ten years, the U.S. system of test-based accountability has “created low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education…and a test regime that has narrowed the curriculum”. All without lifting achievement.

There is a fear in education circles that New Zealand is moving towards this kind of achievement-based accountability. One of the main gripes around National Standards, for example, is that they would be linked to performance pay. And when the Investing in Educational Success (IES) policy was first announced, the NZEI said reports that National Standards would “be used as the benchmark to select and review the performance of an elite group of teachers and principals has appalled educators”.  

I too would be appalled, if it was true. The problem, however, is that as far as I am aware, no one ever said that National Standards would be the basis on which teachers would be appointed to those roles. If they did, I would be out picketing with the NZEI.

There are myriad reasons why linking teacher pay directly to student achievement is a flawed idea. First, it is too difficult to tease apart the impact of the teacher from everything else in a child’s life that matters to their educational success. Second, it has the potential to narrow teaching to the standards. Third, it potentially squashes the more powerful intrinsic motivations for teaching. Fourth, there would be clear conflicts of interest when teachers are the ones who make the professional judgments that go into our assessment system. Fifth, it hasn’t worked overseas. 

As Tucker explains, it is not appropriate to treat teachers like blue-collar workers of the mass production age. Rather than extrinsic reward and punishment, the way forward is to respect that “intrinsic motivation that comes from being treated like the true professionals”. Tucker is advocating for a professional model of accountability that taps into teachers’ collective responsibility teachers for their students. Career paths that recognise and allow exemplary teachers to share their practice is one way to do that.

Working out how to identify, select, and appraise people for the new teaching roles under the IES policy will be a tricky task. But linking it to narrow measures of teacher performance would be a dangerous idea.

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