Governments claim to be ‘outcomes-driven’ in most areas of policy, with school funding in NSW the latest to become more ‘outcomes-based’. Given stagnant achievement in NAPLAN and free-falling PISA results despite persistent increases in funding, it’s evident that outcomes are not being improved by business-as-usual.
It goes without saying schools must deliver the best possible outcomes for students. These are constantly expanding and now include post-school preparedness, engagement in learning, capability for civic engagement and general wellbeing.
Above all else schools need to teach basic academic skills, starting with literacy and numeracy, for fulfilling post-school education and careers.
But because school funding is wholly input-based, funding and outcomes, including the performance of schools and teachers, are completely detached from each other.
If schooling is anything like baking a cake, a more outcomes-oriented approach means shifting emphasis from the ingredients towards the quality of the finished product. Simply increasing the stock of ingredients doesn’t make a better cake. Particularly since state and territory authorities which pass funds on to schools, have been rolling in Gonski dough for years.
Overcoming school systems’ intransigence to managing performance can’t be shirked if student outcomes are ever going to improve. This means looking seriously at the quality of teaching in school — the greatest controllable factor affecting student outcomes.
It’s clear there is considerable variability in the quality of teachers between and within schools.
Yet this is not reflected in how teachers are remunerated. OECD data shows that Australian teachers’ salaries are amongst the flattest and peak earlier than most, despite evidence that a flat pay structure “no longer attracts or retains high-performing teachers.”
It’s also not reflected in the current system of managing teachers’ performance, mostly on meeting vague ‘professional standards’, where just about all are earning an automatic ‘pass’ grade.
A recent audit in NSW revealed that, in 2018, just 102 teachers (0.1% of the teaching workforce) were recognised in the top two of four accreditation bands, well short of the 1,110 target by 2022. And only around one in four of them are in classrooms anyway — most are shifting into leadership roles.
This flop isn’t isolated to NSW, just 573 teachers across the country are recognised under the Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher program.
At the same time, just 53 teachers were formally identified as underperforming, around one sixth of a similar audit in 2003, which reported that this was an unrealistically low number. Only 29 were dismissed in 2018 through formal action addressing poor teaching.
In the case of NSW the sour icing covering the badly-baked cake is that the agency responsible, NSW Education Standards Authority —conceded during parliamentary hearings that they have been conducting ‘compliance’ rather than ‘quality’ checks when it comes to accreditation — literally ‘ticking and flicking’ teachers as proficient.
This vindicates the complaint that performance management is little more than a bureaucratic nuisance, rather than a genuine effort to deliver better outcomes for students. Inevitably, a system that operates like this will fail to identify the best, those that need extra support, and those that are not contributing to students’ learning.
It’s said that money talks and, for this reason, there must be a nexus between performance and pay for teachers, as in virtually every other occupation.
Some of the world’s most effective and efficient education systems employ performance pay. In Shanghai, 30 per cent of a teacher’s salary is based on performance. There is clear evidence across OECD countries that those with performance pay arrangements enjoy significantly higher student achievement across each educational domain —resulting in up to an additional year of learning by age 15.
Applying financial rewards for performance is not novel here in Australia either. Gonski’s second review called for more pay for top teachers based on valuing their ‘impact’. And the Productivity Commission recommended in 2012 that student achievement be among a suite of performance measures considered in teachers’ pay.
The Gillard Government proposed, but later aborted, the Reward Payments for Great Teachers initiative with bonuses up to $8100 for around one in 10 teachers based on, among others, student test results. There are already other incentives, such as the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards, which recognise exceptional teachers for “achieving significant outcomes for their students” and give them a financial prize.
But performance, particularly student outcomes, remains far from systematically attached to funding of schools. This month, federal Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the scheme for performance-based funding in universities — with student achievement weighted by far the heaviest amongst measures.
School funding should follow the model, as performance management will remain half-baked until money is meaningfully attached. This is why NSW should be bold in pursuing outcomes-based school funding and school systems across the country should do the same, if they are committed to improvement.
It’s irresponsible to preside over a school system that fails to reward top educators, has taxpayers questioning their investment in teachers and denies young learners the best possible learning opportunities.
Glenn Fahey is an education research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and was formerly with the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.
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