High marks for classroom mediocrity

Teachers marchingThis week’s Teachers Federation strike in NSW — despite being ruled illegal by the state’s Industrial Relations Commission — saw up to 60,000 public school teachers off the job in a fresh campaign for higher pay and lighter workloads.

However, as is often the case, the campaign is off the money when it comes to the facts on teacher pay. It’s simply not the case that Australian teachers, particularly starting teachers, are short-changed.

Starting teachers (around $73,000 in NSW) out-earn graduate lawyers — and many other professions, for that matter. By international standards, Australian teachers earn more than in similar countries, as well as compared to similarly educated Australians.

Teacher salary spending now amounts to over $9,500 per student each year, with steep increases in recent years. Real teacher salaries have grown nearly 2.5 times faster than in the OECD over the past two decades (around 20 per cent in real terms).

Despite record funding, Australian student achievement in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment has declined more steeply and consistently than any country in the world, other than Finland.

While Australian teachers’ salaries are competitive overall, pay rates are flatter than in most countries. And pay is largely based on tenure, not effectiveness in the classroom.

It’s the flatness and unresponsiveness of salaries — not the overall salary level — that is the real problem with teacher pay.

Genuine reward and recognition is rare in teaching

Research clearly shows that across-the-board pay rises do not result in better student outcomes. But they do impose a heavy burden on taxpayers, encourage the retention of our least effective teachers, and discourage retention of our best.

Recognising and rewarding high-performing teachers, on the other hand, does drive better results.

Many large school systems across the United States have looked to a closer nexus of teacher performance and pay. Over a decade, the scheme in Washington DC has delivered sustained student achievement gains, lifted teacher salaries, improved instructional practice, and retained highly effective teachers.

Yet, genuine reward and recognition is rare in teaching. And it is this that undermines the profession — by creating a culture that ‘doing your time’ is the only way to climb the ladder, and stunting the development of aspiring teachers.

That’s why, rather than demanding across-the-board pay rises, the way to better pay is for flexibility and responsiveness to performance.

Parents and taxpayers don’t object to top teachers earning top dollars. Particularly after months of home-based learning, parents are only too familiar with the value of great teachers.

It’s not only that tilting funding toward top teachers is a smarter allocation of limited resources; it’s also a far better investment of taxpayer funds.

Highly effective teachers bring Australia dividends in education outcomes. That’s because there are consequential learning and lifetime earnings gains for students who have highly effective teachers. Research shows that investment in high-performing teachers generates considerable returns to future economic growth and in promoting social mobility.

This is why it’s time the Teachers Federation dropped the demands for universal, tenured, and guaranteed pay rises, and instead welcomed genuine merit-based pay. It’s not just students who would benefit from this: teachers’ union members would also have access to greater opportunities for career and financial advancement.

Policymakers must also do their bit to advance the teaching profession.

Earlier this year, the NSW Productivity Commission proposed the creation of career pathways for ‘instructional leads’ — highly effective teachers who want to remain in the classroom — as well as calling for better monitoring of teachers’ performance. This is eminently sensible and necessary.

Typically, the best teachers must currently leave the classroom to take on administrative and leadership roles to advance their career. But removing them from the classroom is counterproductive, since they are inevitably replaced by a less effective teacher. However, providing them a way to earn high salaries, while honing their craft at the chalkface, is an excellent and overdue idea.

Importantly, higher pay for our best teachers needn’t break the bank.

Simply accommodating slightly larger class sizes — which research shows would not adversely impact on student outcomes — would produce significant cost savings. This pool of funding could be leveraged to support our high performers.

Australians value education and the work of our educators. But they also want to see the teacher workforce advance in status and professionalism, not indulge in retrograde industrial disputes.

Truly advancing the teaching profession requires adopting a pay structure that recognises performance.