09 June 2007

No consensus on performance pay for teachers

The Star

IS the offer of performance pay the best way to attract and retain teachers in the schools? And how do the authorities measure performance in the teaching profession?

Australia’s Education Minister Julie Bishop believes that the teachers’ performance should be based on their contribution to the overall well-being of the school community, a student’s well-being, the teachers’ professional development and their performance in the classrooms.

“That’s not possible,” is the consensus of many teachers, their unions, education experts and the state education authorities.

And a recent research conducted by the Australian National University considers the idea of a performance test for teachers a “myth.”

It finds that test directly linked to performance would show only top 10% of teachers are “twice as effective as the bottom 10%.”

The question of performance pay for teachers arises as a result of a serious shortage of teachers in Australia, which leads to a grim warning that the country would face an even bigger problem next year if immediate action is not taken to rectify the situation.

Increasingly, teachers are leaving schools for the lucrative jobs in the mining industry just as doctors are moving out of country towns to get into business or set up their own practices in the cities.

The consequence is that many schools are woefully short of teachers to cope with the increasing demand for education and many medical patients have to travel long distances to the cities to seek treatment for their ailments. Both issues are reaching crisis point.

Faced by the appalling situation, one angry oncologist resigned from her position recently to lead a public campaign for the reopening of an oncology unit in the Gold Cost of Queensland.

Jackie Morgan has formed a cancer patients’ action group, which also aims at raising awareness of the problems of cancer victims, their difficulty in travelling from the country towns to the capital cities for treatment and the recruitment of at least two full-time oncologists to be based in the Gold Coast.

But the problem of assigning doctors to the country towns are not usual. It is widespread throughout the rural areas of Australia.

Not many doctors are prepared to work outside the capital cities and nearby suburbs. In Queensland alone, at least 50 country towns have only one doctor.

A typical example is the explanation given to Queensland Health Minister Stephen Robertson on the recent recruitment of two doctors for the Gold Coast, a city of 500,000 people.

After accepting the appointments, one of the doctors later told the State Health Department that he was unable to go to the Gold Coast due to a “medical reason.” The other said he could not go because of “family reasons.”

However, one of them subsequently agreed to go, but only in September this year.

One quick fix, obviously, is to recruit doctors from overseas. Foreign doctors willing to live and work in country towns will find it easier to get a permanent stay in Australia.

Solving the shortage of teachers is a different issue. Foreign teachers need to know the Australian culture, the way they speak, the expression, the accent (which may be difficult to some) and dealing with students whose behaviour may be deemed threatening in some cases.

Although education – like health – is the responsibility of each state, the federal government has some say in the matter.

As such, Bishop proposes that the states offer performance pay, declaring that it “will go some way to attracting and retaining more of our best and brightest in the teaching profession.”

The performance test can be based on a range of criteria, including teachers’ training, feedback from parents and students and the students’ achievements in their studies.

The state governments do not believe that teachers' performance can be so easily measured.

Undoubtedly, the concept of performance pay per se is attractive, but is the test practical to apply? What if the students submit a negative feedback to the schools if they simply don’t like the teachers for no other reasons than a dispute over a discipline issue or a personality clash?

The majority of the teachers also fear that performance pay would disadvantage those in the lower socio-economic areas.

Currently, after six years of automatic pay increases, teachers can apply for promotion to level three rank and receive A$76,000 (RM214,580) a year from Aug 1 this year. This is A$8,000 (RM22,587) more than the regular pay scale.

So how would the states solve this acute, problem? No one has a proper answer yet.

Jeffrey Francis is editorial consultant, Australasia-Pacific Media

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