Performance pay is so twentieth century!

New Zealand Post Primary Teachers' Association / Te Wehengarua (PPTA) President Robin Duff looks at the simplistic and outdated twentieth century call for performance pay.

Performance pay and the "silly things some people say" - developing public policy based on an online poll

Abraham Lincoln must have been anticipating the New Zealand Herald campaign for performance pay for teachers when he said: "If all the people say a silly thing, it's still a silly thing."

The Herald imagines it has some evidence and moral authority behind its campaign for performance pay for teachers because it received majority support for an online poll which asked respondents if they supported it.

I have a few questions about that myself, starting with: when did New Zealanders relinquish the idea of public policy based on informed debate in favour of becoming what David Lange called "poll-driven fruitcakes"?

Start from an Informed position and ask informed questions

There are other questions that come to mind. How much human resource expertise did the anonymous respondents have? How many of them were familiar with the range of rewards and sanctions in the current teacher employment agreements? Had any of them bothered to review the range of international research about the complete failure of performance pay systems to lift educational performance anywhere? Do they think performance pay has been successful in the global financial community? And finally, what would the results have been if the question had said, instead, "do you think it is good idea to keep underperforming teachers in the classroom but pay them less"?

If the answer to that question is "yes" then how far should we extend that principle? We can introduce performance pay for airline pilots and surgeons but who would want to fly with the pilot who is paid the least or receive medical treatment from the surgeon who is the worst-paid, least supported and (probably) most demotivated?

Professional careers have mandated requirements to enter, and continue practicing within, the profession

The difficulty with simplistic calls for performance pay is that they don't recognise that in some fields, public safety demands a black and white test "• either the professionals meet the test or they don't. That is why all these careers have mandated requirements:
first "• selected entry into the pre-service academic programme;
second "• selection into the profession through registration and;
third "• ongoing performance management through registration and attestation.

There is a further check on performance in that jobs are competitively applied for and appointed on merit.

Ill informed obsession with performance pay as a tool for motivating and improving professional practice

Given the range and number of points in a teacher's career where selective decisions are made, it is puzzling as to why the commentariat is so obsessed with performance pay. Perhaps it reflects an unfortunate tendency amongst some sorry individuals to derive satisfaction from apportioning blame and meting out punishment. Alternatively, it may be plain ignorance.

There is no helping the status anxiety of those in the former category but for the latter there is plenty of evidence including, most recently, from the Harvard Business Review, that performance pay needs to be dumped because it lacks precision, is open to manipulation by both parties, distracts employees from more important goals and undermines intrinsic motivation. Importantly, it also notes that it is not cost effective and that there are better and cheaper ways to motivate employees.

What's not to like about that for a government committed to reducing costs in the state sector?

Viewpoint published in the May 2012 issue of PPTA News
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