Why Performance-Based Incentives for Teachers Make No Sense

Why Performance-Based Incentives for Teachers Make No Sense

In recent years there have been multiple attempts by federal and state politicians to introduce performance pay policies for teachers. While some studies have shown that a more nuanced performance pay system could potentially improve teaching1, it is the simplistic schemes that are always at the forefront of political debate. These schemes fall under what’s called a value-added model (VAM) – where student results from the start of the year are measured against their results at the end of the year, and then teachers’ pay is based on improvements in student results2. Performance-based pay is not a new idea – it has been a popular notion in Australia since even the 19th century3. And every time it arises into public discourse, it must be dragged out with exasperated sighs by teachers, students and education experts alike. It seems like ‘it’s that time again’ – time for a thorough debunking of the logic behind value-added performance-based incentives in education.

Student performance is not an accurate measure of teacher performance. There are many outside factors that contribute to how well a child does at school. For example; home environment, health history and school leadership, are all factors outside of teachers control which affect academic performance2. Many parents can afford to pay for after-hours tutors to raise their child’s achievement, but this has nothing to do with the quality of the students’ teachers. Using student results to assess teacher performance is inconsistent at best because we cannot account for all the variables which distort data.  If we were to accurately measure teacher performance and control for all these factors, we would require an extremely comprehensive system – one that would cost a lot more time and money than is politically feasible.

But performance pay isn’t just a problem logistically. Introducing value-added performance pay would also provide perverse incentives for teachers and schools to avoid taking on or retaining their most challenging students. When too much focus is placed on student results, schools are encouraged to move resources away from struggling students, who are on the brink of giving up on their schooling. Under this system struggling students are viewed as a liability to a school’s reputation and teacher pay. Studies have shown that attaching high stakes to test results encourages at-risk students to drop out4. We’ve already heard the stories about underperforming children being told to stay home from school on the day of NAPLAN tests5. How much worse is this going to get if we introduce performance pay? To adopt this scheme would be to throw disenfranchised kids under the bus and completely undermine the ideal, that education should be a level playing field.

The US is an example of the kind of results we might see if we choose to follow a more business-oriented approach to education. There is a huge focus on standardised testing and using these tests to determine school funding and performance pay6. In some cases, the top-down pressure that this placed on teachers forces them to fabricate and falsely certify students’ test results7. This is a serious indication of the systemic problems that underlie such a business-oriented approach. Ultimately, we want to avoid these problems by not attaching high stakes to standardised tests.

Moreover, the ways we measure student performance through standardised tests do not provide a true illustration of a student’s level of education – it is one dimensional. Tests of academic performance are not a holistic measurement of learning, there are many intangibles in learning that are not captured by high-stakes testing. For example, it’s relatively easy to measure maths competency, but much harder to measure empathy. Indeed, the issue with our increasing focus on results-based teaching is that we aren’t measuring what we value, we are simply valuing what we can measure8. The introduction of performance pay for teachers would make tests even more central to teaching practice and see these intangibles further neglected. They provide a clear incentive for teachers to focus primarily on those areas that are tested and abandon the teaching of skills that are not tested.

There are many effective ways to improve teacher effectiveness that avoid the pitfalls of performance pay. To find out more about the alternatives to value-added performance-based incentives for improving teacher effectiveness, I spoke to Associate Professor Suzanne Rice from the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education.

When asked about how to best address the issue, Associate Prof. Rice said that “the key mechanism that we can use to improve teacher effectiveness is to provide well-designed, research-based teacher professional learning, and to provide teachers with the time and support to undertake that professional learning and to implement what they’ve learned in the classroom, adjust it, and embed it within their classes.”

She added that we also “need to be introducing teachers to some of the latest research on what is likely to be effective and help them understand how that can be tailored to their situation, and how that can be used to support student learning.”

It seems that the best way to improve teacher performance is to further educate teachers on how they can be most effective. If this tells us anything, it’s that teachers generally want to do the best they can for their students, they just need to be given the time and the skills to do so. Time and again, we see that teachers aren’t just in it for the money. It is becoming clearer that we need to shift the conversation away from performance pay and towards better professional development programs for teachers across the country.


[1] https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=workforce

[2] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED529977.pdf

[3] https://blogs.slv.vic.gov.au/such-was-life/performance-pay-for-teachers-an-old-and-new-debate/#_edn1

[4] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Shriberg/publication/236749426_High-Stakes_Testing_and_Dropout_Rates/links/5a1c6c2d0f7e9b2a53169568/High-Stakes-Testing-and-Dropout-Rates.pdf

[5] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-05-11/struggling-students-exempt-from-naplan-tests/430984 , https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/i-was-shocked-the-students-pushed-out-of-naplan-to-boost-school-results-20171026-gz8sh1.html , https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/schools-can-cheat-naplan-exams/news-story/8160b68c1e79ce869538913e730cdad4?sv=b59a2d62196169e454c5b81c9635dc23

[6] https://theconversation.com/students-test-scores-tell-us-more-about-the-community-they-live-in-than-what-they-know-77934

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/01/how-and-why-convicted-atlanta-teachers-cheated-on-standardized-tests/?utm_term=.9b5ebcfae2ab

[8] Biesta, G 2009, ‘Good education in an age of measurement: On the need to reconnect with the question of purpose in education’, Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, vol. 21, no. 1, pp. 33-46.