The Dog’s Bollocks

Truth is like a dog’s bollocks – pretty obvious if you care to look.

Bishop fails Performance Pay performance

John Spooner
It would seem that the rising star of Federal Head Girl for Private Schools, Julie Bishop, is officially waning and that her ill-prepared attempts at bullying the States into compulsory performance pay schemes for teachers will relegated to the back burner with her standardised report card marked “could do better” and “needs to do more homework”.

The wash-up this weekend in The Age includes the following from Farrah Tomazin:

Ms Bishop earned no favours by demanding the states sign up to her proposals without explaining where the money would come from — a problem compounded when Treasurer Peter Costello admitted it wouldn’t come from Treasury.

She then released research that admitted “few merit pay schemes have survived when applied to teaching”, and which highlighted the difficulties in introducing such a costly initiative. There has also not been an answer to how the performance of a teacher can be measured.

The plans were branded unworkable and attempts to conduct pilot programs from next year were also rejected.

The most incisive commentary comes from Hugh Mackay with his whimsical analysis of applying a performance pay scheme for politicians:

The logical place to start would be with Julie Bishop, federal Education Minister, whose obsession with performance-based pay for schoolteachers has raised serious questions about her judgement, her sensitivity and her grasp of reality.

Even if it’s a good idea, it’s a plan doomed from the start, because it carries no promise of extra funding. The same pie is to be cut differently, Bishop proposes. Pay loadings for the brightest, shiniest teachers and, er …

The strongest objection to the Bishop proposal is that it is an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable. To quote Einstein: not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Yet we live in a society obsessed with quantification: we even have national indices of happiness, but that doesn’t mean we’re any closer to cracking the code.

There’s a sting in the tail of all this. Our state education systems, around the country, are degenerating, but the problem is not with the teachers; it’s with the appalling lack of resources. We are creating two tiers of secondary education, and the public tier is increasingly for those who simply can’t afford the private alternative. If that’s the Government’s intention, perhaps the fuss about performance-based pay for teachers is merely a distraction from the looming crisis in public education.

As for Bishop’s own performance on this issue, it looks like about 3/10 for preparation, 5/10 for imagination, 9/10 for bravado, 2/10 for sensitivity and zero for political skills. I suspect her report card will say “can do better”. And maybe she can, if she focuses on her more realistic aspirations for a national curriculum for core subjects.

I was chuffed to be included for the first time, albeit mis-attributed, in this week’s Missing Link at Club Troppo. This post began as an attempt to bring a personal conclusion on this particular piece of political ideology that has been in the media for many months.

Ken Lovell, at The Dead Roo, makes a compelling comment on the whole saga:

The more I think about it the more I come back to one central point: The alleged problem that needs fixing has not been properly defined, so any changes are likely to be ill-conceived, have unanticipated consequences and may well do more harm than good.

I’m sure many things could be done that would improve our kids’ learning outcomes in the public school system. Some would cost money and others would require significant changes in community attitudes. Whether any of these things SHOULD be done is another question altogether, because they all involve an opportunity cost. For Howard’s mob to seize on the pay system as THE issue that needs changing is just the triumph of ideology over sound public policy.

Bishop’s ideological stance aside, as far as improving educational outcomes for students goes there have been two main issues. Firstly, the question of improving the quality of teaching and learning, and secondly, how to make teaching a more attractive career in the face a looming teacher shortage.

Bishop’s ideology and politics led her to conflate the two issues into one: of rewarding teachers for better student outcomes. Never mind that such a system would impose even more restrictive and costly bureaucratic overheads on schools, making teaching an even less attractive career choice. Even the most favourable evidence suggests that such a model would deliver slight improvements in standardised test scores at best. Whether better test scores represent an improvement in teaching and learning, or simply reflect that teachers will ‘work the system’ by teaching to the test in order to avoid financial penalty, remains a moot point. In any case, wherever such schemes have been tried, they have been short-lived and unsustainable.

The simple way to make teaching more attractive is to pay teachers more and extend the classroom career/promotion path. It would also be helpful if the likes of Julie Bishop and John Howard desisted in regular denigration of the profession. Reduce the administrative load on classroom teachers by providing more ancillary staff to take care of the ever-expanding load of administrivia. Hey, maybe even reduce the overall amount of administrivia, and stop crowding the curriculum with politicians’ issue de jour, such as Civics, Simpson’s Donkey, Drugs, etc.

In terms of literacy, the single most effective and economical way to improve our already world-leading standard, is to provide sufficient specialist teachers for reading remediation programs, and recognise that there is no universal law of nature that says all kids have to be able to read at a particular level by age 6, as Kieran’s story simply and eloquently illustrates.

Both these measures require more resources and bigger budgets, (as if any serious performance pay scheme wouldn’t as well). And therein lays the rub.

The Howard Government (and the States to a lesser extent) has been systematically reducing real levels of public education funding for over a decade in its bid to encourage a shift to private schools with public education relegated to being a welfare safety net. I’ve called this ‘privatisation by stealth’ on previous occasions. An essential part of Howard’s strategy has been to shamelessly undermine parent’s confidence in public education at every opportunity, and what better way than by blaming the teachers. It’s like blaming poor medical outcomes on overworked doctors in a hospital with woefully inadequate equipment incompetently managed by Sir Humphrey’s Department of Administrative Affairs which identified that hospitals run more efficiently when they don’t have to deal with patients.

Bishop’s spectacular failure this week simply underscores the perception that Howard is yesterday’s man with no vision of an Australian future beyond the resources boom. The one way to get a smarter country is to get serious about educating it. As I’ve said before, there is no better example of what this can do than the Republic of Ireland. Two decades of substantial investment in education and industry transformed Ireland from the backwater of Europe to one of the wealthiest and healthiest economies in all of Europe, reversing 150 years of population decline in the process.

But I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that Howard isn’t really that keen on educating the masses anyway: it keeps wage costs down, discourages them getting uppity ideas beyond their station, and they might just start seeing through the layers of spin and conclude that the government doesn’t really have a clue about much of anything, except ensuring a cut of the action for their corporate masters. Of course, that’s not really true, is it? Is it?

Filed under: Big Picture, Economics, Education, Politics

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