Exceptional teachers to be recognised

Rose Patterson
The National Business Review
28 June, 2013

Finally, exceptional primary school teachers can see an opportunity to be recognised for their hard work in the classroom. The primary teachers’ union, the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), recently announced the introduction of what is essentially performance-based pay.

NZEI is quick to defend their position that it is by no means performance-based pay. The reality is that it is performance-based pay, but not the kind that unions feared when Treasury put forward the rather benign idea in 2009 to “reward high-quality teaching”. In response, unions readied their war chests for a battle against performance-based pay, one battle in a war against what they have labelled an imposition of a business model on schools.

It seems that NZEI has come a long way on the issue since then. In fact, they have led the development of this initiative to reward high-quality teaching - the Advanced Classroom Expertise Teacher (ACET) allowance - as part of their collective bargaining process.

From 2015, up to 800 expert primary and intermediate school teachers will receive $5,000 on top of their usual salary.  Teachers who apply will submit a range of evidence to demonstrate their expertise and their impact on student learning.

So why were unions initially so against the idea of rewarding high-quality teaching? They perhaps interpreted it as tying pay explicitly to student achievement data. The fear that this could happen is understandable given that national standards were also being introduced. It is easy to see why teachers could have thought that the government had grand plans to link the two.

Tying teacher pay to student achievement data is widely opposed, and rightly so, for two main reasons.

First, it is difficult to attribute improvements in student learning to the work of the teacher. It is statistically possible, but relies on high quality and reliable data on student achievement, something that New Zealand does not have.

The alternative is to link it to national standards data, a farcical idea when you consider that national standards are based on teacher judgements. If a teacher’s pay is based on student achievement data that the teacher themself was the judge of, it’s plain to see the potential for distortion.

Second, basing pay purely on student achievement data shifts the focus too far from the love of the job to the eye on the money. Of course teachers, like anybody, need to be fairly recognised for their work and pay is a large component of this. But as Professor Graeme Aitken, Dean of Education at the University of Auckland pointed out in his article Why Performance Pay can’t work, incentives can drive behaviour initially but motivation fades over time and the money is not enough anymore.  This distracts teachers from their love of helping children learn, and can narrow their focus to “drive behaviours that maximise those rewards”.

All of this is not to say that Treasury’s original proposal of rewarding high quality teaching wasn’t a good idea. And Professor Aitken is not against rewarding high quality teaching either. Many of the ideas from his follow-up article If not performance pay, then what? are represented in the new agreement for recognising expert teachers.
The problem currently is that the teaching pay scale does not recognise expert teachers, and this impedes student learning.

Progress up the scale happens almost automatically. A teacher who is dedicated and committed goes up the scale, but so does everybody else. The love of the job only goes so far. 

Second, where do teachers go once they reach the maximum on the pay scale? The only real choice is school leadership, and for those who don’t have the interest or disposition for that career path, there is danger of stagnation, and clearly this is not good for student learning.  

The Advanced Classroom Expertise Teacher (ACET) allowances will go some way to dealing with both of these problems. But the details of it need serious consideration before it is rolled out in 2015. New Zealand must look overseas, particularly to Singapore which has for the last 15 years been developing a specialised and sophisticated career track for teaching expertise.

New Zealand can learn a lot from this model; just two points are touched on here.

First, the 800 allowances should not be filled with the top 800 applicants. Singapore currently only has 40 Master Teachers so far, after 15 years, and they wish to develop 160 in total. But teachers must first develop as Senior Teacher and then Lead Teachers before becoming Master Teachers, and the standards are exceptionally high. It’s difficult to attain – which makes it attractive. In New Zealand, there shouldn’t be a rush to promote the top 800 teachers. If only the very exceptional are awarded who meet high standards, it sends a signal about the quality expected and could lift the whole profession.

The second thing to learn from Singapore is that the element of competition in promoting the best teachers doesn’t come at expense of collaboration. A large part of the role of a Master Teacher in Singapore is to share teaching expertise with other teachers, which again, serves to lift the teaching profession as a whole.  The agreement between the NZEI and the Ministry of Education already signals that evidence of collaborative work with other teachers is a requirement for the allowance. They are on the right track.

There is still a lot to be fleshed out, but the agreement in rewarding high-quality teaching shows how far the NZEI and government have come in reaching fair compromise that best serves the interests of student learning. The unions’ initial fears of performance-related pay were understandable but they have since done a lot to establish a method of rewarding high-quality teaching. New Zealand’s best teachers should be recognised, and the NZEI should be applauded for their work on this.

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