Performance-based pay doesn’t make the grade

Imagine a world where all workers are paid based on the quality of their performance; after all, it only makes sense, doesn’t it?

The most money should go to the architects who design the most beautiful buildings, the chefs who cook the most delicious food, and the teachers whose students are the most successful.

It only seems natural.

Of course, if one simply looks a little closer, the whole idea starts to break down. Who is to say what skyscraper is the most aesthetically pleasing? On what scale do we quantify the taste of a meal? And how do we define the success of a student, much less tie that back to the instruction provided by a single teacher?

According to a new study from the Fraser Institute, that’s exactly what governments and school boards need to do if they want to see improvement in the effectiveness of teachers. The thirty-five-page report, published earlier this week, advocates a number of reforms for the procedure of hiring and retaining public school teachers, namely the implementation of increased salaries for teachers based on the performance of their students.

The report seems almost deliberately unclear on exactly how this should be done, but other research on the subject generally seems to favour standardized test scores as the ideal method of evaluation and, thus, for establishing a teacher’s salary.

This raises a number of concerns.

First, every student is different, and some may simply not be good at writing tests. This is why many school boards are increasingly calling for a wider variety of student evaluations, a fact that this new report openly acknowledges. How, then, could we hope to accurately assess a population of students with just one test?

Standardized testing has another enormous flaw: it fails to acknowledge progress. Who has truly learned the most: a student who continues to receive grades in the ninetieth-percentile range in all courses and has done so for years, or a student who used to get fifty percent and has now worked up to a seventy-five percent? Under the proposed plan, the teacher of the first student would receive a higher salary than that of the second. Is that really fair?

Furthermore, such a program could also be dangerous. Previous experiments of a similar nature have led to cases of teachers attempting to cheat the system, either by teaching their students specifically to succeed on the tests or by directly providing answers.

A program like this could also discourage teachers from working in more difficult subject areas like the sciences, where average grades are typically lower than in the arts, for fear of losing income.

The report also suggests that, in order to facilitate the hiring, retention, and promotion of teachers based on effectiveness and not seniority, teachers’ unions would have to be dissolved or majorly revised. This is a frightening concept, particularly considering last year’s unrest in Ontario when the provincial government tried to take away teachers’ rights to collective bargaining. That case resulted in work-to-rule arrangements and strikes. What would happen if the unions were abolished entirely?

The Fraser Institute’s report is not entirely without merit. The root idea—that Canada’s public education system could benefit from reform—is sound. However, the proposed solutions are poorly devised, and in many ways would result in more harm than good. Changing the system is fine, but this isn’t how we should do it.

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