Fair Merit Pay Schemes, Part VII

Today’s Australian carries an article headed “Teachers back merit-based pay”. This surprised me, but having read the DEST report on which it’s based, it doesn’t seem to be oversell. Here are the key questions:

To what extent do you agree that the following would help retain teachers in the profession?
…Higher pay for teachers who demonstrate advanced competence

Secondary teachers: Strongly agree 44%, Agree 26%, Disagree 16%, Strongly disagree 10%

Primary teachers: Strongly agree 39%, Agree 28%, Disagree 20%, Strongly disagree 9%
(See pp120-121 of the PDF)

I’ve been arguing lately that education policymakers should favour pay-for-performance over pay-for-credentials. The basis of this is a spate of US studies, and my own research in Australia, which finds that teachers with Masters degrees do not have higher value-added. Indeed, in my Australian study, some of the Masters coefficients were negative. (On this – though not on many education policy issues – I disagree with Brian Caldwell, whose latest book argues that all Australian teachers should have Masters degrees.)

What’s surprising about the DEST survey is that teachers seem to agree that it’s better to pay for results than degrees and certificates. For both primary and secondary teachers, “Higher pay for teachers who gain extra qualifications” is less popular than “Higher pay for teachers who demonstrate advanced competence”.

That said, merit pay isn’t the only interesting thing to come out of the survey. Teachers also cite student management issues and perennial policy changes as a deterrent; both of which policymakers should be alive to. And they cite class sizes, which suggests that perhaps we need some more homegrown research on the relationship between class sizes and student performance (I’m an open-minded sceptic on this one).

All in all, a fascinating survey. We should do more like this.

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15 Responses to Fair Merit Pay Schemes, Part VII

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    As long as pay is “adequate” – that is you do not feel exploited in relation to the rest of the people with whom you compare yourself then it is unlikely to be either a motivator or demotivator. I suspect that this is why the merit pay debate does not get very far because it is the other things associated with teaching that matter more. Do you like children, is the headmaster supportive, are the parents appreciative of your efforts, do you have to fight the bureaucracy rather than them helping you, is your work recognised as important by the community, do you get a thrill when a child surprises you with their understanding, do you get to take some time off to learn other things.

    Money is important as a “scoring” tool. That is, it can be a way of telling you that you are doing well and that others recognise this. I would like to pay people by how much they enjoy their job as motivated caring teachers are likely to be good teachers. Unfortunately this is hard to measure and so we fall back on things that are measurable.

    Perhaps an alternative is to have teachers paid by experience and to devise ways to give the group (the school) rewards but in a form that the teachers benefit. For example, good schools get more air conditioning, are able to expel disruptive children, get “timbertops” facilities.

  2. conrad says:


    I think pay is a huge factor in the long term. If you paid, say, twice as much for teachers, I’m sure there would enough of them right now.

  3. conrad says:


    its nice to point at that merit pay for individuals might theoretically be a good idea, but supplying the details as to how it might work is far more challenging. Whilst you might get support for the abstract “merit pay”, my bet is that there would be no set of criteria you could offer that would achieve anything like those levels of support, especially if you don’t want to produce weird non-productive behavior as a result.

  4. Kymbos says:

    Isn’t the problem in trying to accurately measure performance? Base it on marks, and there’s a clear incentive to provide easy tests or run through the exam during class. In short, what conrad said.

  5. Bring Back CL's blog says:

    sorry I have appear to miss this but how does one defins ‘merit’?

    One thing stands out like a sore thumb is that teachers overall are underpaid.

    Previously generous superannuation schemes overcome this somewhat but no more.

    It seems you overcome this by either paying them more OR only let them teach what they are qualified to teach i.e. they work less

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Conrad, I’m sure you’re right that once we set out specifics and trade-offs, support for any particular proposal would decline. Similarly, if teachers were told that a 10% class size cut would lead to a 10% salary fall (basically the tale of the last two decades), they might be less supportive of it.

    BBCLB/Homer, if you click on the “arguing lately” link above, you’ll find a bit more of a discussion on your point.

  7. MsLaurie says:

    Class size is definately an issue. Its a workload issue, not a child-test score-outcomes issue.

    For each additional child in the class room, a teacher has to know another child’s needs, interests, skills, where they need support, family background, etc etc. Its another set of parents to write reports for, to interview with. Its another kid taking up physical space in the room, cutting down the amount of area for projects to be worked on and displayed. Its another kid who hasn’t yet discovered deodorant smelling at the end of the day in summer, and tramping in muddy shoes during winter. Its an extra maths test to mark, or essay to read.

    For teachers who have significant time constraints, taking the class size from twenty-two to twenty-five kids probably has no effect on their ability to get good scores out of the children, but it would have an effect on how pleasant their classroom is, and how much time they spend on marking at home, etc etc.

    Class size definately matters.

  8. Tanya says:

    Given the low pay issues, I wonder if the support is really for the idea that they as individuals would be the ones to win the pay increases. That is to say, the supporters would include teachers who feel that they have advanced abilities and who (post verification) would receive a pay rise. However, among the supporters would also be those teachers with unrealistic views of their abilities and those teachers who think that their abilities would be good enough to pass (what they believe to be a likely) low standard test by people just like them.

    I haven’t looked at the survey in any further detail, but I don’t like the term “advanced.” It’s too close to “senior” or “older” in meaning. Given that teacher starting salaries are reasonably high but there are few increases thereafter, and given that we know teachers are unhappy about this situation, it would have been best to use less ambiguous language.

  9. Tanya says:


    As you point out, class size does matter. However, in Australia today, it would seem that the sizes are now within a range whereby the investment required to reduce sizes further would probably produce far less return than other investments. As much as some folk don’t like the idea, there would seem to be a trade-off between decreasing class sizes by employing more teachers at the same salary levels and maintaining class sizes as they are but increasing (whether differentially or not) salaries.

  10. Bring Back CL's blog says:

    Ta, andrew

  11. Kevin Cox says:


    Teachers being underpaid was – I thought – another issue. Given a level resources devoted to education how should the money allocated to teachers be split. Should it be on time served, job function, qualifications, results obtained by students, etc. Many people – myself included – would like to see some reward given to schools (or teachers) whose students learn more by some measure. However, how that reward is given is the issue and should there be other factors in the equation.

    Has anyone thought about giving teachers a choice on how they get remunerated. There is no reason why different teachers have to have the same salary and benefit arrangements? If we can vary the pay why not vary other conditions and why not give people a choice? It might even be a way of finding out if merit pay works and if teachers wanted it or would prefer to see other group rewards.

  12. Chris Curtis says:

    Of course society can afford to restore both teacher pay and numbers to what they were 20 and 30 years ago. It’s all about priorities and deternmination.

    As the timetabler for Hampton Park Secondary College until the end of 2004, I organised that school with a maximum teaching load of just under 18 hours a week and the capacity for decent time allowances (deductions from teaching loads for leadership responsibilities). Less than one per cent of classes had more than 25 students in them, and those only marginally. These were the best conditions in the state, a demonstration that such conditions were possible and the ideal towards which other teachers should have worked.

    Instead, Victorian teachers foolishly endorsed the 2004 Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, as a direct result of which the teachers at Hampton Park, who intelligently voted against the proposed EBA, were forced to accept higher teaching loads, longer periods, inadequate time allowances and the abolition of their management advisory committee.

    I have checked the tables (pp98-99) in the ACER report from which The Australian created its headline about teacher support for merit pay.

    Among primary teachers, 71 per cent wanted higher pay for those with extra qualifications and 67 per cent wanted higher pay for “advanced competence” The following items were ranked ahead of both as factors which would help retain teachers:
    1. Smaller class sizes (96),
    2. A more positive public image of teachers (95),
    3. More support staff (95),
    4. Fewer student management issues (93),
    5. Reduced workload (88),
    6. Fewer changes imposed on schools (87).
    Ranked second last was higher pay for teachers whose students achieved specific goals; i.e., performance pay – (24).

    Among secondary teachers, 70 per cent wanted higher pay for “advanced competence”. The following items were ranked ahead of it as factors which would help retain teachers:
    1. Smaller class sizes (94),
    2. Fewer student management issues (94),
    3. A more positive public image of teachers (94),
    4. Fewer changes imposed on schools (87),
    65 per cent wanted higher pay for those with extra qualifications. Ranked ahead of it were:
    6. More support staff (89),
    7. Reduced workload (86).
    Ranked second last was higher pay for teachers whose students achieve specific goals; i.e., performance pay – (27).

  13. MsLaurie says:

    I guess what I’m saying re class sizes is that I can understand why it would be a key concern of teachers, rather than an issue of student performance, and certainly a reason why or why not they may wish to stay in the profession.

    Equally, the public-respect issue is a huge one for most teachers. There are several teachers in my family, and nothing gets them down so much as parents constantly belittling them, which seems to be seen as okay because public figures (politicians, talk-back radio, etc) do it all the time.

  14. Chris Curtis says:

    The belittling of teachers has had a long history. You can find it continuing on just about any newspaper blog discussion on education. In fact, teachers have been subject to a campaign of fact-free diatribes for years. Below are some of the milder attacks:
    ‘…teacher unions have “captured” the operation of education services in regard to staffing and working conditions so that the education system has become unduly teacher-driven.’ (Institute of Public Affairs, Schooling Victorians, 1992)
    ‘There is extensive over-staffing of teachers, inefficient work practices and “union” capture of education expenditure.” (IPA, Schooling Victorians, 1992)
    ‘The schools are simply a racket and a rort for teachers who use it as a fully salaried system of outdoor relief.’ (Peter Ryan, “Teachers fail to get the point”, The Age, 1/8/1992)
    ‘Socialist Left ideology…is nicely entrenched throughout the state education administrative system, thanks to a continuing infiltration of the faithful throughout the Cain/Kirner years.’ (Michael Barnard, ‘Labor could not learn”, The Age, 28/8/1992)
    ‘The perks and privileges of this cosseted profession were absolutely sacrosanct.” (“A lesson in anarchy”, Herald Sun (editorial), 19/11/1992)
    ‘Schools…appear to be run more for the benefit and convenience of their employees than for their users.’ (Claude Forell, “A reckoning unions had to have”, The Age, 25/11/1992)
    ‘The Kennett Government is pledged to a course that promises to break the debilitating union stranglehold…” (Michael Barnard, “Teachers in a state of intellectual undress”, The Age, 27/11/1992)
    ‘A strong moral case for the present Government unilaterally renouncing all agreements entered into by the previous Government with its employees can be made on the grounds that they were not arms-length agreements.’ (Professor Ross Parish, “Let the Public Service pay towards cutting the ranks”, The Age, 11/12/1992)

  15. Francis says:

    The result is hardly surprising for the simple reason that I’m sure most teachers think they’re better than other teachers – ie, they would quickly visualise themselves getting the payrise. Just like all the surveys find that 80% of people think they’re of above average intelligence.

    Then again, I would also agree that 80% of teachers deserve a payrise.

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