Difference of Opinion

I flew to Sydney last night to appear as a panellist on a new ABC program hosted by Jeff McMullen called “Difference of Opinion”. The topic was schooling, and my fellow panellists were Stephen O’Doherty, Jane Caro and Robyn Ewing. Unfortunately, it’s only a pilot, so will probably never make it to air. But we had a fun discussion, and I learned some things about others’ views.

For me, the most interesting moment was to see the negative reaction of the audience when I suggested that we should trial merit pay to see whether it can work (several audience members hissed) versus the reaction when I suggested that we should take the $10 million per year that the federal government plans to spend on chaplains and instead appoint 100 talented teachers working in disadvantaged Indigenous communities on six-figure salaries (wild applause). Merit pay for tough schools is clearly a lot more popular than merit pay across the board.

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36 Responses to Difference of Opinion

  1. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Merit pay for tough schools is clearly a lot more popular than merit pay across the board.

    ABC audience is hardly an unbiased sample of the population. For a pilot its probably the ‘usual suspects’. Were any of the experts considered ‘conseravtives’? (I understand that an economist by definition is a conservative in ABC-land).

    I hope you’re wrong and this program does get up. There are very few ABC programs that indicate any difference of opinion but those they do have (Insiders for example) are very good.

  2. Kevin Cox says:

    My reaction would have been the same as your audience.

    The reasons are that my past experience in attempting to measure and evaluate merit amongst cooperating peers who are working together has lead to bad outcomes. However, rewarding people for doing extra work or hard jobs or special achievements beyond the call of duty leads to better group dynamics. Rather than ‘merit’ differences give all teachers higher salaries and reward them for doing extra things.

    What we try to do in our company is to give everyone involved in a successful project the same bonuses or rewards because it is too hard to differentiate the contribution of members of a team and you almost always get it wrong when you try to do it.

    If teaching was a solitary pursuit then merit pay makes sense but I believe the best results are when it is a team effort. Perhaps merit pay could be based on giving the whole school extra funds if they improve the performance of their students beyond what was expected and then let the school decide what to do with the funds.

  3. Matt says:

    Andrew, I think there are a few points to make:

    The ABC is hardly likely to have a “balanced” audience in Sydney, although that does explain why there were a few vacant cafe tables in Glebe last night;

    The audience “types” are clearly against “merit pay” unless it provides an opportunity to bash anyone with religious beliefs (hence the hissing becomes cheering when you can the chaplains);

    The overall argument for merit pay is compelling. Teachers are like any other profession. There are some exceptional underpaid teachers and some that are not. Compensation should reflect that.

    Like Sinclair, I hope the show gets up. Insiders is a great example of a show that has different opinions and it works. There needs to be much more debate in Australia on issues involving people from across the political spectrum.

    Finally, given the ABC seems to be dominated by climate change doomsayers who are lecturing us all constantly about our carbon footprint, I’m surprised they flew you from Canberra to Sydney…

  4. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Matt – email address on your blog doesn’t work.

  5. Patrick says:

    Finally, given the ABC seems to be dominated by climate change doomsayers who are lecturing us all constantly about our carbon footprint,
    There are about three environmentalists in the world who care about their environmental footprint, Matt.

    The rest (Al Gore being the most nauseating example) care about yours.

  6. Don Arthur says:

    Re: the hissing and cheering reactions

    How people react to your incentive schemes depends on how they interpret them. It’s an issue about perceptions of distributive justice.

    1. Higher pay for talented teachers = distribution according to merit

    2. Higher pay to attract talented teachers to disadvantaged areas = distribution according to need.

    Researchers in the psychology of social justice have found three principles of distributive justice – equity (reward for merit), equality, and need.

    The first is associated with political conservatism and a hierarchical society. The second two are associated with socialism and social democracy (eg “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”).

    When you talk about merit pay you focus on the teacher. You are creating a hierarchy.

    When you suggest paying more for good teaching in disadvantaged communities you are focusing on the students — you are saying that the students’ needs are important not that some teachers are better or more valuable than others.

    For a good introduction to the literature try ‘Social Justice in a Diverse Society’ by Tyler et al.

  7. Matt says:

    Some well-argued points Don, however if you stripped away a merit-based approach for every occupation I suspect that our economy would not be in great shape.

    You also need to be careful of your “need” reference in point 2. All children “need” good teachers, whether they are in disadvantaged areas or not.

    Considering how important the education of children is Don, I cannot understand why social democrats want to continually lower the hurdle and not reward the teachers who are clearly better…it happens in every other workplace.

    Sinclair, thanks for your comment…email is matt@righthinker.com. I’m currently getting my site reconfigured.

  8. Russell says:

    “it happens in every other workplace.” – does it? how many people in universities, hospitals, even department stores are paid on merit. I suspect most people are just paid a set salary. I say department stores because I had a friend who worked the pens desk in Myers and was told “Congratulations, last month we sold more pens than any other Myers store in Australia”, but there wasn’t any more money, or any other benefit.

    I wonder if people are wondering if any merit system can be ‘fair’.

    Also what the bad effects of such a system might be. In Perth we’ve had a lot in the paper about school results – league tables of schools according to university entrance test results etc. One result of this is that schools divert students who won’t perhaps perform well out of that stream. Or they decide, on the compulsory literacy tests, to wipe off students who would take intensive staff help, and use those resources to improving the level of a larger number of students whose scores can be more easily improved.

    So if testing student performance can have these unfortunate side effects, why would we think that a good way of measuring teacher performance, that doesn’t have bad side effects, can be devised?

  9. Don Arthur says:

    Matt – You’re right. It’s not always easy to decide what the principle of need means in practice.

    One of the most straightforward examples is the allocation of resources in health care.

    If a drug can save your life then we can say you need it. If the drug just makes your life a bit more comfortable then you don’t need it as much. If it won’t make any difference then you don’t need it at all.

    In education some children may have deficits that will respond to ‘treatment’. According to the need principle you would provide remedial reading classes to students who are having trouble reading. You wouldn’t provide them to all students.

    There’s a lot of controversy about how to treat so-called gifted students. You could argue that all students are entitled to whatever they need in order to reach their full potential. But since taxpayer funded resources are limited there’s always an argument about priorities.

    There’s also controversy about capacity to benefit. Not all students will respond equally to extra resources. In health care you’ve got patients who can consume vast quantities of resources but will only manage to live for a couple of extra weeks or months. It’s likely the same thing happens in education.

    I’m not making a normative argument about what government should do. I’m just looking at how people think the issues through.

  10. Patrick says:

    I wonder if people are wondering if any merit system can be ‘fair’.

    That’s a no, Russell, no they aren’t.

  11. Russell Hamilton says:

    Patrick – speak for yourself!- what set me wondering is that in the WA public service they abolished ‘merit’ as a ground for appeal in the event that you didn’t get the job or promotion you had applied for. Now you can only appeal if there was an error in the process. But ‘merit’ was abolished because nearly everybody who didn’t get the job felt that they were more meritorious than the person who did. So it might be difficult to come up with a merit pay scheme that people perceive as ‘fair’.

  12. Sacha Blumen says:

    Andrew, you’ve written on your site about US school districts that are instituting monetary rewards for good student performance, where good may mean improved test performance (I’ve forgotten what else it may include). It would be interesting to see the effects of these policy experiments.

    I, for one, would like to give different policy experiments a go. I disagree with the idea that it is not possible in principle to determine great teachers from not-so-great teachers.

  13. Sacha Blumen says:

    Just a thought – many people find it pretty easy to work out which of their work colleagues are good workers and which are not.

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  15. Claire says:

    But Andrew, there’s already a non-zero proportion of the pool of teachers in remote areas who do it for the money and are quite open about doing so. They are typically saving to buy a house in Melbourne or Perth and work in the Northern Territory or remote Western Australia for a few years because of free housing and the remote allowance makes a big difference. They aren’t particularly bad teachers but they are bad for the community in the long run because they have no intention of staying more than a few years and they tend not to make much of an effort while they’re there. It also creates resentment between them and the teachers who have made a long-term commitment to remote education. Attracting qualified teachers isn’t the whole story.

  16. Patrick says:

    Sorry Russell, I suspected you of villainous spreading of communism again 🙂

    Your actual point is quite reasonable, if somewhat semantic.

    Fwiw I think that in obviously measurable areas there is little problem – think athletes or musicians for a start, whose pay is largely linked to a fairly objective metric – popularity.

    I think for teachers it is not that hard. There is a lot of experience with teaching on every side of the fence in every format in my family, and I don’t believe any but the bolted-on unionists oppose merit pay. Fwiw there are a lot of fans of vouchers as well.

    But clearly there would be fields where it would be difficult.

  17. conrad says:

    “They aren’t particularly bad teachers but they are bad for the community in the long run because they have no intention of staying more than a few years and they tend not to make much of an effort while they’re there”

    This is a weird argument. Are people supposed to stay in one place forever? What about people working OS for a few years where they contribute their skills to a place that doesn’t otherwise have them? This is common throughout the university and medical systems around the world, and it is hugely beneficial in many ways as new ideas/skills are spread.

    Also, if they don’t make much effort, then presumably either a) they are not needed, in which case the simple solution is not to get them in the first place; or b) there is such a shortage that even someone not particularily motivated is better than nothing, in which case they are of value (doctors forced to work in the country are a good example), and your expectations of them are simply to high vs. reality.

  18. Russell says:

    I only know of one person who’s salary adjustments are merit based – she works in the library of a law firm (we all know how ruthless and mercenary they are). Nobody in the firm is allowed to tell anyone else what their salary is – which supports my earlier point – if people knew each others salaries they would feel the system wasn’t fair. That’s not conducive to the sort of team approach that Kevin mentioned earlier.

    But like Sacha, I think it’s worth trialing schemes and seeing what happens.

  19. Paul Frijters says:

    Merit pay for teachers is an interesting idea where the devil is in the detail. On the one hand, its clear some teachers are better than others and if one cant reward the good ones, there’s less incentives for good ones to enter teaching or to do their best once they’re in the profession. So if it were an easy thing to measure teacher performance it would seem a good idea to which you could really only object to if you disliked the whole notion of differentiating pay on the basis of productivity. On the other hand though, when its tough to measure merit you get all kinds of disruptive game playing. Russel’s argument that some teachers will try to dissuade the worse students from doing tests is very valid. Its exactly what happened in Brittain when league tables became important and its going on in Oz too (the schools my kids went to all encouraged certain students to be ‘ill’ on the day of the test). Game playing can get much worse than this though: if the game is about having the highest-scoring students, one can actively bar the less-good students from the school or from one’s own class, at the expense of the student and other teachers. If the game is about value-added, then one can try to get rid of pupils whom one knows are not making much progress before they do any test. Also you get teach-to-the-test phenomena. Perhaps most importantly, the administratino of such schemes can become prohibitively expensive. Just think of the amount of information one would need to have if one wanted to administratively reward individual teachers for the progress of their individual students. you’d need to follow students and teachers whereever they go (including other states); you’d need to figure out what to do with part-time students and teachers; how to account for spells of maternity and illness; how to deal with classes who get taught by multiple teachers; etc. The administrative machine needed to do all this would create red tape and an interfering bureaucracy of the first order.
    The underlying economic problem seems to be that the teacher and his fellow teachers have more information more quickly about students and about their fellow teachers than the outside bureaucrat has. Hence the notion of rewarding team effort or letting the school principal decide would seem better than administrative reward rules whereby a bureaucrat in a far-away place decides how much extra an individual teacher gets on the absis of the statistical output from a package fed dubious, costly, and manipulated data.
    Perhaps I too would have hissed, but more because of the fear that the net result would be the appointment of thousands more bureaucrats than the principle of pay differentiation per se.

  20. Sacha Blumen says:

    Andrew L, it might be interesting to the blog contributors if you could reiterate the purpose for which you think merit pay for teachers is something worth considering. What is the purpose trying to be achieved with merit pay? Is it to reward very good teachers?

  21. Patrick says:

    At least:
    Motivate good teachers to actually become teachers
    Motivate good teachers to actually teach well
    Motivate good teachers to keep being good teachers (ie not quit)
    Provide information as to who is and is not a good teacher

    Reward is relatively incidental, I would suspect, except to the teachers themselves.

  22. Don Arthur says:

    Paul’s comment makes sense to me.

    If you do manage to create powerful incentives then you run the risk of creating perverse incentives. People start playing games.

    Bureaucracies typically respond to this by making and enforcing more and more rules — rules which undermine teachers’ autonomy in the class room.

    And because bureaucrats lack the local knowledge of individual teachers these rules risk hurting overall performance.

    The whole exercise could undermine the professional norms that promote good teaching (non-monetary incentives) and spark bitter feuds over the definition of performance, the accuracy of measurement and the ethics of pay for performance.

    As I understand the literature, people aren’t all that good at judging their level of performance. Confronted with a low score, many would be convinced that the scheme either measured the wrong thing (“it leaves out what’s really important”) or was innacurate. If you’re estimating value added then you’re probably going to have to justify a regression model that some teachers wouldn’t be able to understand — including poor performing math teachers.

  23. Andrew Leigh says:

    I’ve been enjoying the dialogue from the sidelines, but Sacha has invited me to jump in, so let me just make a couple of points.

    1. In my view, the main benefit of merit pay is that it might change the composition of the teaching profession, by creating stronger incentives for good teachers to stay, and for those who expect to be good teachers to enter the profession. It’s possible that merit pay might also cause some teachers to do a better job than they would otherwise have done, but I’d regard this kind of effort argument as secondary.

    2. Paul and I have been debating the issue of performance measurement for a couple of years now. He raises important issues, but I think he overstates the extent to which teachers will game the system, and the additional bureaucrats required to estimate a value-added model (I’m told that some states already have the data, they’re just not sharing it with the public). On the issue of explaining it to non-economists, William Sanders in Tennessee reckons he regularly does so in a matter of minutes. But if you’re scared of the big bureaucracy model, the alternative is to put the power in the hands of principals.

    Merit pay might not work, but I’m astonished at the vigour with which some of its opponents (I’m thinking of public figures, not commenters on the blog) are willing to shoot down the prospect of merit pay experiments. Are we really that sure that our school system is perfect?

  24. Kevin Cox says:

    Andrew here is a thought on incentives.

    There are a myriad of social problems (and market failure problems) in trying to evaluate teacher merit. We do not know how to do it very well at the level of trying to discriminate between teachers. It just doesn’t work and probably because of the market failure in the level of knowledge between the givers of rewards and the recipients.

    Let us go for group rewards on outcomes like student performance in life (maybe the rewards are 20 years down the track). But let us look at less disruptive rewards like ways of increasing social status. Much cheaper but probably more effective.

    Certainly at my age I would prefer an extra two years of life to an awful lot of money.

  25. Patrick says:

    But let us look at less disruptive rewards like ways of increasing social status. Much cheaper but probably more effective.

    Can you elaborate?

    Certainly at my age I would prefer an extra two years of life to an awful lot of money.

    Did you mean ‘ways of increasing social status‘ through longevity treatments???

  26. Don Arthur says:

    I’m sceptical but I’m all for experiments.

    In the US evidence from research organisations like the MDRC helped breakdown partisan opposition to new welfare-to-work initiatives. Maybe we could do the same thing here with education.

  27. Claire says:

    Conrad, I didn’t mean ‘forever’, but there are all sorts of reasons why getting teachers who are more likely to stay longer would be beneficial (i.e. say 5 years rather than 2). Take the language issue: most of the kids at your “average” remote community school don’t speak standard English, and most of your “average” urban-trained teachers have a lot of trouble understanding the kids when they first get to the community.

    Why not spend $10 million a year on a remote training centre for intensive training of Aboriginal teachers – train local people properly who want to live in the community a make a difference for their kids, rather than bribing outsiders who leave before they stay long enough to get integrated into a community?

  28. conrad says:

    Rather than setting up stuff specifically for them and treating them almost like a group of aliens, perhaps a much simpler solution would be to have some scholarships (like I believe, possibly incorrectly, for people wanting to become doctors from such regions). Its probably likely to work better too given the difficulty of trying to get almost anything done like that in those areas (which I’ll assume you would have had the joy of experincing trying simply to collect data in those areas).

    For example, if you had $10 million, you could have 200 * $50,000 scholarships, and places like MQ and UWA also have established Aboriginal programs, so, speaking of language issues, you might even inspire some of them to try and learn their own languages in the long run.

  29. Chris Curtis says:

    I would not be surprised at the vigour of the opposition to so-called merit- and performance-based pay systems, particularly if the opposition is from Victoria, where we have experienced exactly what a fraud it is in teaching.

    Since 1990, we have been through four fraudulent career “restructures”, each of which promised to reward the best teachers and each of which failed to do so.

    In 1991, at the urging of the teacher unions, which gleefully betrayed their members who were Senior Teachers, the Senior Teacher class was abolished on the dishonest grounds that merit did not play a role in promotion. A new system of promotion to Advanced Skills Teacher (1, 2 and 3) was introduced and all existing Senior Teachers were demoted to AST 1. Teachers promoted to AST were told this would be a reward for expertise as classroom teachers. AST 1 paid another $1,000 pa, about $10 a week after tax, and left teacher pay way behind what it had been in 1982, so just about anyone who applied got promoted, the panels reasoning that the amount was so trivial any halfway decent teacher should get it. More substantial amounts were paid to AST 2s and 3s, but in every case the role was an administrative one that took those promoted out of the classroom.

    Following the 1992 election, the Liberal government, as part of its general stupidity and vandalism in education, decided to abandon the AST system before it had even been fully implemented and introduce a category of Leading Teachers instead. Again, in every case the role was an administrative one that took those promoted out of the classroom. In addition, promotion was for a limited time, and Leading Teachers were expected to sign performance plans to be eligible for bonuses. This was a device to co-opt the Leading Teachers to the government’s agenda for command and control as it set up undermining state education, a technique of co-option that had worked so well with principals, who had rushed to sign individual contracts, grab their bonuses and enjoy a rather complicated rort of the state superannuation scheme. I am the only Leading Teacher I know who refused to sign one of these unprofessional performance bonus schemes, for which I was duly punished.

    Following the 1999 election, the Labor government kept the Leading Teacher category, though it abolished the bonuses and replaced them with salary increments subject to successful reviews of performance by principals, and introduced a new category called Experienced Teacher with Responsibility to reward the best classroom teachers. This category of teacher ended up doing such educational tasks as running the school speech night and managing the school’s website.

    Following much complaint about the ETWR system, the AEU and the government agreed in the next EBA to abolish ETWRs and create a new category called Expert teachers to reward the best classroom teachers. This category of teacher ended up doing such educational tasks as ringing up the maintenance people and being in charge of asbestos inspections.

    Each scheme has failed to reward the best teachers. Each of the last three schemes has added to workload by instituting complicated, bureaucratic and ultimately pointless reviews that disguise bullying and victimisation in schools. This is, in fact, what they are supposed to do.

    There is a case for paying more to the best classroom teachers, not as bonuses and not as pay-offs for betraying your profession by signing an AWA, but as ongoing salaries. Any scheme for such payments has to ensure that such teachers are distributed across the school system, rather than concentrated in the middle class schools, and that they are not subject to review by the bullies who lurk in the Principal Class. This works against the current fad for taking the system out of the government school system by making schools competing fiefdoms under the control of supposedly entrepreneurial principals. Past experience tells me such a scheme is extremely unlikely.

  30. Kevin Cox says:

    Patrick the link I gave was to a report that life expectancy appeared to increase by two years if you won a Nobel Prize and the hypothesis was that the increase was due to the increase in social status.

    Money is one way of measuring and defining social status but perhaps there are better ways of rewarding merit that might fit in better with the total social environment of teaching and the outcomes we want for students.

  31. Patrick says:

    Maybe I should have read the link – then again, maybe not.

    Do you mean ‘better ways’ like the million dollars and effectively unlimited research funding that comes with a Nobel prize???

    hey, I know a ‘better way of rewarding merit that might fit in better with the total social environment of teaching and the outcomes we want for students. ‘ – just pay them more!

    And while I am at it, can you just get over this stupid obsession with money? Money is the basis of civilised life. It is the fungible expression of the worth of your contribution to society which (by being fungible) enables you to participate in the diverse contributions of others to society. It has no moral or aesthetic value, just a functional one.

    Ie, if you want to reward someone for making a bigger/better contribution, you just give them more money, so in turn increasing their ability to partake of others’ contributions.

  32. Sacha says:

    Thanks Andrew L. I have to say that I’m also surprised at the vigour with which the idea of merit pay for teachers is often shot down, either conceptually, or because it is “thought” to be impossible or too difficult to implement.

    I’m sure that many people working in private companies would be surprised at the vigour of the opposition to merit pay for teachers.

    Rather than declaiming the impossibility of its implementation, opponents should argue why conceptually it is undesireable.

  33. Claire says:

    The reason I was thinking along the lines of a remote education centre rather than scholarships to unis in big cities is that one of the reasons so many remote kids drop out of school is the difficulty they have adjusting from a community of 400 to Darwin, etc. Sending Arnhem land people to Melbourne for long periods makes it impossible for them to fulfill community duties (e.g. funerals). It’s thinking like that which is behind Batchelor College – staffing them adequately and doing more regional workshops. I’m thinking in particular of some of the teenagers I know in various communities, fantastically smart, with pretty good reading skills and functional English, who would never go to uni in Melbourne, Adelaide, etc because they’re too crucial to their families. I’ve worked with people who did Batchelor language courses and most of the educational success I know of have occurred in that sort of model.

  34. jane caro says:

    Hi Andrew,
    It was a good session wasn’t it, but apparently neither you nor I made the cut for the program that will eventually go to air.
    On merit pay for teachers, I am not, in principle opposed to the idea. However, as with all ideas, the devil is in the way it is implemented. If it was to be done, extra money (ie: money should not be taken from an already stretched education budget – which I think is Julie Bishop’s proposal) should be given to individual principals and school executives so they can reward teachers they wish to hang on to in their school community.
    What Bishop has proposed could mean that wealthier schools with more resources could afford to offer higher salaries to good teachers and poach them from poorer schools – leaving their already disadvantaged students even more disadvantaged, because she has offered no extra funds for this proposal. The NSW Institute of Teachers is already developing a system that goes some way towards rewarding excellent and experienced teachers – they are developing a system of grades (beginning teachers, accomplished teachers etc) similar to grades of journalists or public servants. As teachers achieve higher grades through the excellence of their practice and experience, they will also be paid more money. A bonus system on top of this administered by principals and school executives could also be of use. But giving even more advantages to already more advantaged schools would not be a good idea for the long time health of all of us. Australia already has one of the largest gaps between our highest and lowest performing kids in the OECD, and a very socio economically segregated education system – that’s why all new proposals have to be carefully considered – however sensible they may sound – to make sure they don’t exacerbate what is already a poor system.

  35. John says:

    Spencer de Vere, of Brisbane said this today:

    “Well, the ABC’s DIFFERENCE OF OPINION last night provided no surprises. A left-dominated discussion panel, and an decidedly
    multi-cultural audience. Geoff McMullan made it very clear what this new ABC effort is all about with his question,

    “In 50 years when millions of Global Warming refugees from India & China flood south to Australia, should we maintain the Pacific Solution and the razor-wire camps, or should we welcome them”?

    When at the end of the program complete idiocy prevailed, De Vere goes makes a telling comment:

    “The sole, rational individual on the panel, Prof. Helen Hughes, rightly pointed out that it was a ridiculous question.”

    I agree with his comments and would add:
    DIFFERENCE OF OPINION, with Geoff Mac Mullen was a complete set up. So outcome rigged. It was about equal to asking people with cigarettes in their mouths whether or not they smoked. It was about as careful a selection of outcome predictable group thinkers as one could humanly arrange.

    The question for me is how did Geoff Mac Mullen goof by allowing a person with a brain on the panel? I bet there will be a meeting of the commissars today at the ABC.

    What email or web address do I need to write to the ABC about this? Can you Help?

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