Teachers’ unions are not helping our best teachers get the pay they deserve

Dr Michael Johnston
Sunday Star Times
19 March, 2023

ast Thursday, most of New Zealand’s teachers were on strike. Teachers’ unions representatives say that the action was necessary to press their claim for better pay and working conditions. Prior to the strike, NZEI president Mark Potter asserted that, without striking, “we aren’t going to get the change that we need”.

It’s not hard to see why teachers believe they deserve more pay. Teaching is a profession with a high degree of responsibility. Teachers increasingly must deal not only with their core job of educating young people, but also with social problems in their wider communities.

The starting salary for teachers is $51,358 per annum. Taking into account teaching time, planning lessons, marking, and running sports and other extra-curricular activities outside school hours, that amounts to about $32 per hour at most. That’s assuming teachers take all 12 weeks of term breaks as holidays, which many do not. A worker on the minimum wage working fulltime earns about $40 thousand per annum.

The unions like to portray themselves as teachers’ champions. But they are actually part of the problem when it comes to achieving better remuneration for teachers. They have consistently and fiercely opposed any change to teachers’ career structure. Teachers are remunerated purely on a ‘time served’ model. Their performance is irrelevant to their pay.

Consider for a moment two hypothetical teachers.

Teacher one is just two years into her career and full of enthusiasm and drive. She puts in long hours outside the classroom, preparing stimulating lessons and activities. This teacher is the first to put her hand up for extra-curricular activities. She maintains close relationships with her students and they love her for it. As a result, her class is orderly and harmonious. She teaches effectively and prepares her students for successful lives.

Teacher two has been teaching for twenty years. She is jaded and cynical. As soon as the bell rings at the end of the school day, she is out of there. This teacher tries to avoid doing more than the bare minimum. Her teaching approach is dull, disengaged and ineffective. Her classroom is chaotic and disorganised. Every student in her school dreads being allocated to her.

Everybody, including union officials, knows that both types of teacher exist, with many between these extremes. Yet they defend to the last a model of remuneration under which Teacher two is paid much more handsomely than Teacher one, simply because she has been in the profession for longer.

We need a new approach to teachers’ career structure. We need a system in which effective teachers are paid more than ineffective ones.

The unions worry that the criterion for promotion would come down to how well their students do on standardised tests. That is a straw-man argument.

Test data should play a part in promotion decisions but should not be the whole story. Opponents of paying teachers based on merit are right to think that such an approach would not only be unfair but would have a detrimental effect on teaching and learning.

Any test, no matter how well designed and reliable, is narrow in scope compared with an educational curriculum. Not everything that’s worth teaching can be reliably and validly tested. There is a risk that, if it was the sole criterion for promotion, teachers would be incentivised to ‘teach to the test’, meaning that the wider curriculum would suffer.

Furthermore, simply taking a point-in-time measure of students’ learning as a measure of a teacher’s performance ignores the fact that students coming into that teacher’s class vary in their prior learning.

To the extent that test scores are considered in a teacher’s promotion, we should focus on the progress students make in that teacher’s class, rather than their absolute level of attainment. Even then, we must be careful. What, for example, of teachers who take on a lot of students with learning disabilities? It would hardly be fair to penalise them because those students learn more slowly than average.

The limitations of tests are such that they should be just one component – albeit an important one –in promotion decisions. We should base those decisions on a broader range of evidence.

As much as we might hate being schooled by the Aussies, we should take a leaf out of their book. In Australia, teachers have four stages in their career structure. To move from one stage to the next, they must demonstrate that they meet certain criteria.

For example, to be promoted from ‘Proficient teacher’ to ‘Highly accomplished teacher’, a teacher must contribute to the professional development of colleagues, demonstrate outstanding subject and curriculum knowledge and have excellent interpersonal and presentational skills.

When teachers seek promotion from one step to the next, they should put together a portfolio of evidence, including both measures of the educational progress made by students, and their other professional contributions.

How well do they work with their colleagues? Do they engage well with parents? Do they coach sport or direct student plays? If they have been in the profession for a while, do they mentor more junior colleagues? Such portfolios would be submitted, perhaps with testimonials from colleagues and parents, as a basis for promotion decisions.

Some teachers deserve to earn a lot more than they currently do. Some do not. Some should be discouraged from continuing in the profession at all. Until teachers’ unions accept that not all teachers deserve to be paid the same, they will continue to make it more difficult than it should be to advance pay claims for their members.

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