What on Earth Should Pay Be Based on if Not Performance?

I was asked this morning what I thought of the news that New York City has dropped performance related pay having found it to be ineffective. So what do I think of performance related pay? Well to be honest I can’t quite see how one could be against it – what on earth should pay be based on if not performance?

The problem is with the idea that exam results are the means to and/or the end of performance related pay.

Given that performance related pay is supposed to be about paying someone to achieve their intended outcomes, basing it on exam results assumes that teachers’ intended outcomes are purely exam orientated. Maybe it sounds naïve but I just don’t think that’s the case. Even in the highest achieving, high pressure, results orientated, turnaround schools, the teacher who always deals with problems on the corridor, who leads cross-curricula projects, who takes groups of pupils on trips, who organises local business sponsorship for projects, runs clubs and societies and always teaches good to outstanding lessons is absolutely respected as a “high performing” teacher. What head wouldn’t want them in their school and what head wouldn’t spot these achievements and want to reward them?

Performance related pay that takes into account all aspects of a teachers’ performance is surely a great way of incentivising a proactive attitude to going the extra mile – not necessarily by making teachers think “oh, if I run this club I’ll get some extra money” but by ensuring that the most professionally successful teachers are also the most successful in their careers. This establishes the right role models for new teachers. New, eager teachers are often keen to go beyond the call of duty and showing that this will be recognised would help retain them. It is hardly stimulating for them to see coasting teachers being rewarded unfairly. 

Much of the criticism of performance related pay has come down to implementation. It has rightly been argued that if pay is based on results then:

·         Teachers will fight to be timetabled with the classes who’ll achieve the best results

·         Lack of accurate baselines makes a value added system unfair and imprecise whilst raising the stakes further on assessments

·         Teachers will end up teaching even more to the test

These problems are clearly linked to the strange idea of basing pay purely on exam results. A wider basis would avoid this. Of course, new problems would arise in terms of making a fair assessment of teachers’ broader performance, but frankly, that’s the point of performance management. If Heads and Line Managers can’t accurately judge the performance of staff and can’t be trusted to do so, then schools have a serious management problem. Some might say judgements by managers are too subjective, however a proper management structure means these judgements should be moderated effectively. As a result, “subjectivity” could be turned to sensitivity to school context. By this I mean that schools could design their own performance criteria which would promote the schools’ priorities, ethos and culture.

If performance management started to have more pay implications it would also become a much more meaningful tool in raising teachers’ performance. Consider a conversation in which the manager says “at the moment your performance is x but if you engage in for your professional development and lead some new projects, next year, your performance will be ..." If there were an incentive to do it would become a much more powerful conversation than some of the fairly vacuous ones I’ve seen. Of course, that relies on managers linking their management to professional development but that’s exactly how it should be.

Ultimately performance related pay linked to what is rightly considered “performance” is the only fair way of doing things. It helps highlight the right role models, promotes positive work by teachers in a way that is sensitive to a schools’ priorities and becomes a useful performance management tool whilst avoiding many of the data problems inherent in exam results based systems.  So, if New York’s performance related pay system didn’t result in an increase in exam results, did it fail? Not necessarily, but it may also have been the wrong approach. 

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