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Performance-related pay for teachers is nothing more than zombie education policy thinking

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Dr Sara Black is a Lecturer in Education at the School of Education, Communication and Society, King's College London, where she teaches Masters courses on Education Leadership and Change and Theories of Change in Schooling. She is a former maths teacher and taught trainee South African teachers from 2014 to 2021, helping to launch the Newly Qualified Teachers Project at the University of Cape Town.

Many of the ills in South African schooling are a result of neoliberal thinking on top of apartheid and colonial injustices — performance-related pay for teachers is like prescribing more of the poison as the antidote. If this were a medical conversation, such thinking would be decried as medieval quackery.

Once again, the zombie policy idea of performance-related pay for teachers is rearing its head (given how many times it’s been slaughtered, you’d have thought this ghoulish idea would finally die).

Perhaps adjectives like “zombie” and “ghoulish” seem hyperbolic: I hope here to convince otherwise. Because as is the wont when we don’t learn from history, this off-the-cuff policy idea comes around every generation, most often promulgated by those who are either unfamiliar with the complexities and nature of pedagogic work, or ideologues who believe that “the market” somehow is god-like and fixes everything.

This despite mounting empirical evidence that unfettered markets exacerbate inequality and hurt the most vulnerable (a social Darwinian perspective that mistakes means for merit).

Recently I encountered an early mention of the idea of performance-related pay for teachers in a text describing mid-19th century schools in England (a time when “adding a little sawdust to the bread” was seen as a justifiable cost-cutting measure on the part of the baker).

And yet, I found myself on a radio broadcast recently where this idea was once again being touted by a private sector CEO as a way to “attract the best and the brightest” into the teaching corps in South Africa.

The rationale, from their perspective, was that this works in the private sector and hence is worth a try in the education sector.

Private sector takeover

Two problems arise with this somewhat naïve transfer of logic. Firstly, we’ve been transferring ideas from the private sector (profit-motivated) into the public sector (supposed to be care-motivated) for 40 years (it’s called “neoliberalism”) and the result has been the cruellest gutting and pilfering of public services in modern history.

For some South African examples, think of Life Esidimeni or the absolute joke that Telkom became.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Life Esidimeni — seven years of indignity and injustice

For examples further afield, consider the oligopolies that have arisen from privatising UK power companies, train companies and water companies, all flouting regulations on quality of service, hiking prices and gouging both customers and the government for essential services that hold the populace over a barrel. (Yes, Eskom’s power provision is atrocious — but in the UK, people have been self-load-shedding, turning themselves off and freezing in their homes all winter while their power bills have quadrupled in the space of a couple of months. That’s the power of the market for you: freedom to choose between freezing or having enough food.)

Secondly, the rationale for performance-related pay as “effective” in the private sector completely ignores how this hasn’t worked in the private sector either.

One need look no further than the behaviour of bankers for examples — would the toxic sub-prime mortgage of 2008 have happened if investors were not financially incentivised to find “profitable” trading forms, no matter what?

Would Steinhoff have become the financial disaster it is if short-term financial reward did not entice the hiding of costs and losses from oversight?

How is it that Silicon Valley Bank staff just walked off with massive bonuses while their institution folded?

The list of cases is endless… but somehow easy to ignore when promoting the financial-incentive medicine as a cure-all.

Performativity

Unsurprisingly, these sorts of distorted behaviours are also what happens when teachers have a pay-cheque guillotine hanging over their heads. In education sociology, we call it “performativity” — the redirection of energy and focus towards “cooking numbers” that are measured and attached to praise or punishment, along with a concomitant neglect of activities that are not measured or considered “important” (even if these are fundamental to the professional execution of duty).

Performativity is an insidious phenomenon in education (it is in the private sector too — consider how delivery drivers measured on delivery times drive recklessly to achieve better scores).

By way of an example from personal experience: I started my career as a special-needs teaching assistant in a school in the UK when the pressure to perform was reaching fever pitch in the late 2000s. Schools were judged based on how many students they could claim achieved a C grade or higher at maths and English. Nothing else mattered: just the percentage of students with 60% or higher in these two subjects.

My first job as a trainee teacher was to take students out of their other classes (geography, French, history, art…), sit them down in front of an online maths test meant for adult students in colleges, and make them take the test again… and again… and again… until they scored a C. The school then bagged this as an “alternative exam” score that counted for their ranking.

This behaviour was totally anti-educational: the students didn’t learn more maths, they just learned to hate it. They hated me too. The other teachers also — quite rightly — fumed at having their students taken out of their lessons, creating knowledge gaps and lowering their subject marks as a result.

The whole machine inverted to play the game for the score, irrespective of the cost and harm done in the process. Teachers were set against teachers. Students were “resources” to be deployed strategically to maximise marks. All was geared towards the metric.

Recently, in the masters class I teach on Education Leadership and Change, my part-time students who are in-service teachers nodded their heads and responded “yes, yes, this still happens”. This is performativity, and the perverse distortions it creates.

There is evidence that this kind of zero-sum inter-teacher competition is happening in the US where performance-related pay is used. Teachers try to send the “hard-to-teach” students to other classes, and hold on to the “easy-to-teach” students in order to secure their income levels.

Selection and exclusion

In the UK, schools “exclude” students who make their marks look bad, turning vulnerable children into ping-pong balls sent from school to school. The distortions in Charter schools in the US work along similar lines, where “improvement” in grades is claimed as a result of “charterisation” (i.e. privatisation), when meanwhile, selection effects are working to attract higher achieving students and exclude lower-achieving ones.

And yet, in the systems we love to valorise for high student achievement, performance-related pay would be condemned as a barbaric policy.

Can you imagine this in the SA context? The horrendous consequences in schools already vulnerable and so exposed to violence, community suffering, infrastructural degradation and teachers overworked and completely unsupported? What kinds of horrors might be incentivised if half a million teachers now can’t be sure they can put bread on the table unless they compete with each other for high-scoring students?

Sounds like Squid Game 2.0: ghoulish and cruel. And totally anti-educational.

The worst of the cruelty lies in an inconvenient but well-known thorny problem in education: the main factors affecting a student’s grades lie outside the school.

Of the in-school factors that make a difference, yes: highly qualified teachers who believe in their students and focus on teaching and learning are the biggest factor. But this is dwarfed by the issues of the home and surrounding community.

This is the truth that middle-class South Africans don’t want to hear… that the failures of the education system are not just down to teachers or education officials, but are a mirror for broader social failures in economic inequality, poverty, housing, healthcare etc.

In what I call “exposed schools” (approximately 85% of the system), the Herculean effort to just try and cover the curriculum requires saints and martyrs of everyone. Unfortunately, we can’t staff a schooling system with superhumans: it’s just not possible. Teaching and learning conditions need to change.

As I said in the aforementioned radio interview: I estimate about 20% of my students in my former township Grade 9 maths class had foetal alcohol syndrome or some other diagnosable learning barrier. Early childhood nutritional deficiencies and traumas are well documented as common in poor communities in South Africa.

As a teacher, my Master’s degree in education, Bachelor’s in Maths and years of experience as a teacher cannot undo these factors… and if my take-home pay was pegged based on my students’ marks, I would’ve been even more screwed than I already was in trying to do my job.

So while adequately trained and skilled teachers is a necessary prerequisite to enable teaching and learning, it is an insufficient condition for systemic change — the conditions in which teachers work will remain a barrier to enacting the schools we want for all our children.

Currently, work conditions in the most desperate of schools drive staff out (a now somewhat dated investigation of SA teachers back in 2005 indicated that many would leave if they could; evidence on newly-qualified teachers indicates a high attrition rate in the first five years of teaching, and scarce-skill teachers like maths teachers are the hardest to retain).

Imagine now what performance-related pay would do to further drive out those who can leave, and demoralise those who can’t, given the myriad external influences on students’ learning in class?

Do many of our teachers need support and help?

Yes.

Are they getting it?

No.

If they had the chance to engage in meaningful professional development to acquire the skills they need, would this be enough?

No.

Not while classrooms are falling apart, while classes are 40+ students, while students come to school traumatised, tired, hungry and sick, and while violence is commonplace.

Many of these ills are a result of neoliberal thinking on top of apartheid and colonial injustices… in which case, performance-related pay is like prescribing more of the poison as the antidote. If this were a medical conversation, such thinking would be decried as medieval quackery.

To quote the education sociologist Milbrey McLaughlin, you “can’t mandate what matters” to people. If we want to develop a teaching corps focussed on professional conduct, valuing knowledge and learning, and centring the interests of the child, we must create the conditions for this.

Building trust is a fundamental aspect of being an education professional. Financialised incentives and performance-related pay are the antitheses to such an approach.

Let’s finally relegate this kind of barbarous, zombie thinking to the dustbin of history where it belongs. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Antoine van Gelder says:

    When the choices that produce excellence are rare and not commonly understood we may be tempted to instead place our focus on factors that are common and easy to regulate.

    Thus we are fated to continually re-discover Goodhart’s law:

    “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

    Excellent article, thank you!

  • Geoff Krige says:

    Interesting article, but it comes from a somewhat idealistic perspective that an improved income is no incentive to perform better. Yes, I am aware from my own teaching experience that performance-based requirements can be odious, but I also know from my own teaching experience that a lack of incentive is extremely demoralising. To argue that because educational outcomes are determined more by the general social context than by teaching, performance-based rewards don’t work is misleading. All it indicates is that performance indicators have to be set differently. I agree absolutely that performance measures as often applied are not helpful. But I would argue that performance must be measured and good performance rewarded. We just need more creative thinking around how this is done.

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    Well, all I can ask is this: how come are most of the lower performing teachers stuck in low pay jobs in the government schooling sector whilst most of the higher performing teachers are engaged by the private sector schools in well paid jobs?
    You call out performance advocates as ghoulish zombie outcomes addicts, but you offer no ideas on the alternatives. And outcomes in education are not based on fudging numbers – they are based on what your pupils enter the school as and what they leave the school as. Government school teachers in South Africa are paid by grade – not by the effort they put into their students’ education – and the results of THAT system are pretty obvious. This is not a neoliberal, post-colonial, post-apartheid problem: it is in fact nearly 30 years of blind commitment to central socialist planning ideals.

  • Epsilon Indi says:

    Neoliberalism has better outcomes than any other ideology. Clearly you don’t like neoliberalism but then again you don’t offer any more appropriate approach. Neoliberalism is responsible for lifting more people out of poverty than any other doctrine.

  • Alison Immelman Immelman says:

    #just saying. It’s a whole lot easier to achieve well when you are teaching clever kids. And it’s all about the A symbols and A aggregates. Getting 14 C symbols in an H class is pretty impressive, too.

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