In 2009, a US not-for-profit group called the New Teacher Project held a study into the school improvement strategies conducted by various school districts. It concluded that there was a unanimous belief that improving teaching was the strongest lever available to schools and districts. Despite this, teachers weren’t being treated like professionals, or differentiated or in any way respected as the key to raising standards. Rather, they were treated as widgets in a factory production line.
Admittedly the English system is not the US system – but teachers here have often been treated in much the same way. Nowhere is this more evident than the way in which they are paid during their first few years of teaching. Under the previous system, teachers automatically progressed up the pay scale every year: they were paid more for an additional year’s experience, regardless of their quality, their attitude or their impact on pupils.
No high-performing organisation ought to treat its main asset in this way – and, indeed, many in the corporate space operate a form of performance-related pay (PRP). When looking at the Times’ Top 100 Firms 2012-2013 (rated by graduates themselves as the best places to work), it’s no surprise that a substantial number of them offer performance-related pay and progression as part of their graduate schemes. These kinds of systems are common across multiple industries that consistently rank highly: the “Big Four” accountancy firms, three of which top the table of graduate destinations; John Lewis (ranked 10th); the financial organisations (four of the top 20); and management consultancy firms (15 of the top 100). Graduates are attracted to these companies in the knowledge that they will be rated on their performance and paid accordingly.
Following the intervention of schools secretary Michael Gove, schools should now be doing the same. Since last September, they are meant to have been offering a system of PRP for teachers on what is known as the “Main Pay Scale”. This is meant to bring those teachers – about 45 per cent of the full time workforce – in line with their more-experienced colleagues and school leaders, who are already paid under a system of PRP. Today’s report from Policy Exchange – Reversing the ‘Widget Effect’ – looks at what this will mean and how best to deliver it.
It is worth taking a moment to consider some of the arguments raised against PRP – largely from the teaching union leaderships. Some of the unions say that there’s no evidence to show that PRP works. But this is factually untrue: studies from Dallas, Denver, Washington DC, Arkansas and Israel have all found a demonstrable improvement in pupil outcomes (in fairness, studies in Portugal, Tennessee and New York City showed no such benefits).
Others say that the complexity of the links between teaching and outcomes makes PRP inappropriate. But, although teaching is indeed complex, it is not uniquely so, nor does it defy measurement. Research by the Gates Foundation has shown that multiple measures of teacher effectiveness (eg, pupil progress on tests, classroom observations, feedback from pupils and teachers) can be used to make very accurate predictions of future pupil progress. In other words, teacher effectiveness can be measured.
Lastly, I have more faith in teachers’ goodwill and professionalism than their unions seem to have. I doubt very much that the introduction of PRP will lead to teachers hoarding resources or refusing to collaborate with their colleagues for fear of losing out.
Polling published by Policy Exchange for this report shows that mainstream teachers are more optimistic about the potential for PRP than their own unions. Of those teachers surveyed, nine out of ten teachers said they want to be paid on the quality of their teaching. And although many are rightly cautious about the need for the system to be fair, they are prepared to give this a chance. George Parker, the former head of the teachers union in Washington DC, saw a very similar effect when he controversially signed a PRP deal for the District. Yet the evidence is now clear. As George explained when he came to London a few months ago, although unions raised objections, most mainstream teachers valued the extra recognition and financial reward. And since its introduction, teacher recruitment in DC is up and outcomes for children are improving. This is the type of effect that I want to see in schools in England.
To make PRP work, schools will need to work hard to design systems that are reliable, have credibility with teachers and reward collaboration and pupil progress. This is no small task, raising questions about the effectiveness of the Department for Education’s current “hands-off” approach. If schools are to reverse that pernicious widget effect, though, they should ignore the unions – and start treating teachers like professionals.