Performance pay is folly

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Introducing performance-related pay for education staff would be folly, argues Dr Mary Bousted.

Those who cannot learn the lessons from history are doomed to repeat them, and performance-related pay (PRP) is definitely a case in point.

UK governments have been trying to devise ways to pay teachers on the basis of their performance for well over a century, from Robert Lowe’s payment by results scheme in 1862 to education secretary Michael Gove’s remit to the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) this year – despite the fact that there is not a single shred of evidence that PRP works.

In fact, most of the research carried out since PRP’s heyday in the 1980s has shown the precise opposite. The American education author and lecturer, Alfie Kohn, in The Folly of Merit Pay (2003), points out the insuperable problem in establishing a performance pay system for teachers – output is not readily measurable.

This deduction was echoed by, of all people, management consultants PriceWaterhouse Coopers, whose report for the STRB in the same year concluded: “Teaching is a professional job and it is exceptionally difficult to introduce individual performance-related pay arrangements where results are generally difficult to measure.”

The implications are clear. In manufacturing or sales, where there is a direct link between targets and an individual’s contribution, it may be feasible to reward performance. But when jobs become more complex, it is practically impossible to make objective, verifiable and consistent judgements. With teaching, which is a collaborative activity, we need to question how the impact on an individual pupil’s achievements throughout their whole school experience can be accredited to any one teacher.

Recent research has upheld those conclusions of a decade ago. Harvard research in 200 New York state schools, reported this year by pay specialists Incomes Data Services, showed that there wasn’t any evidence performance pay had a positive effect on student performance, attendance or graduation levels.

And in the week Mr Gove published his evidence to the STRB, an examination of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test data from over 70 countries, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), revealed no correlation between pupils’ test results and the use of performance pay. 

Since Mr Gove appears to have an ideological belief that introducing market forces of competition through performance pay will drive up education standards you might have thought that his STRB evidence would have unearthed some solid support for PRP for teachers. On the contrary, his evidence is peppered with unsubstantiated assertions, heavily qualified statements and blatant contradictions.

Summarising experience with PRP in the United States, Mr Gove’s evidence states “estimated gains in test scores associated with the judicious use of salary incentives were modest”, while in Sweden, which is portrayed as having ferociously complex systems of individual pay for teachers, there was “as yet” no evidence that these had led to better outcomes. 

Despite a bibliography spanning five pages, Mr Gove’s submission to the STRB is overwhelmingly evidence-free.

The logic is inescapable. If a viable system of PRP in teaching were possible, then, in the decades of discussion over this issue, it would have been identified and replicated across the sector. By returning to it at this stage, the government has demonstrated that it is more concerned with cutting costs than raising standards.

But perhaps Mr Gove’s approach to teachers is best illustrated by the response to his own question on how to raise the status of the teaching profession. Although this question formed a specific part of the remit to the STRB, Mr Gove’s submission makes no attempt to answer it. 

He evidently believes that all he has to do to raise their status is to cut teachers’ pay, make it harder for them to progress in their careers and keep up a continual barrage of criticism, and then let the market do the rest. What a performance!


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