HSV Submission 2007 – Performance Bonuses for Teachers

Activity Type:

HSV Submissions – July 2007

Performance Bonuses for Teachers

Submitted 25 July 2007 to Federal Minister for Education, Hon. Julie Bishop


Giving teachers ‘merit pay’ or performance bonuses (PB) is a practice that seems to have originated in the USA. The idea is linked to existing political and economic characteristics of the broader society, which is highly competitive with emphasis on the individual. The Federal Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, created a storm by announcing a policy of performance bonuses for public school teachers, to be in place by 2009. She wanted state education ministers to sign on to her proposal, with the threat of withholding Commonwealth education grants. While there is general agreement teachers ought to be paid well and paid more, teachers, teacher unions, educationists and others have voiced opposition to the form of her proposal.

Arguments against performance bonuses:

  1. The minister gave only a generalised version of how PBs might be allocated. Criteria mentioned were student results, and feedback from school community and parents’ groups.
  2. PBs had been tried in the past and later dropped as unsatisfactory.
  3. No additional money was to be allocated to public schools, so PBs would come from a redistribution of currently available funds.
  4. They are time-consuming to implement.
  5. They create competition and dissension among teachers and can destroy morale. Such systems reward a few teachers well, but avoid paying all teachers well.

Arguments in favour of performance bonuses:

  1. They could meet public demand for accountability.
  2. They might help attract talented professionals into the classroom and retain them.
  3. They may motivate teachers to teach better.
  4. Once teachers reach the top of their present pay scale, the only way to earn more is to reduce time spent in the classroom and take on more administrative tasks, i.e., become a head of a faculty, chief of staff, principal or vice principal.

While some forms of employment may lend themselves to performance bonuses (for example, a salesperson can be assessed on volume or value of sales), teaching is a cooperative, multi-disciplinary profession. To remunerate on something as tightly focused as exam results leads to teachers teaching for exam passes, as examples from the past show, rather than trying to educate students in the subject. They may get good results, but the students’ overall education will suffer. Getting school community and parent feedback can readily lead to popularity being what is valued. Giving the Principal too much say on performance bonuses can lead to favouritism and toadying. Different teachers inspire different students. For this reason, it is important that teaching as a profession attracts a wide range of people. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that a teacher not considered all that competent on usual criteria can be inspirational to certain students [The Age, 12 April 2007, Tony Thompson]. An overly regulated assessment system would squeeze maverick teachers out.


On the ethics of performance pay for teachers, HSV made the following points to the Federal Minister for Education, Hon. Julie Bishop:

  1. Providing progressive education that is universal, free and secular is the very best investment a society can make. Maintaining and improving the education system is a key responsibility of government.
  2. A simplistic approach to implementing performance pay would “throw the baby out with the bath-water”.
  3. Government attempts to make the individual teacher financially accountable evade their obligation to fund general education in the public interest. Social division fostered by inequity of access to education does not help a democratic society.
  4. Teaching is a moral art which cannot be controlled by bureaucracy. Teachers are not like sales staff. They are in professional relation (in loco parentis) with their pupils.
  5. The needs of the students are paramount, and salary reform can be justified only if the students get a better education. A positive learning environment has enthusiastic teachers who co-operate in helping individual students; the school will have a collegiate morale and the staff will assent to their terms of employment. Therefore, all teachers should participate in any salary reform and approve the assessment process.
  6. Valid assessment of a teacher’s performance is notoriously problematic, because there is no clear way to separate the effect of the particular teacher from the complex of factors contributing to learning. It is for educators, not government, to decide on professional teaching standards.
  7. Government schools need an increase in total funding, including higher salary bands for classroom teachers. Teachers need a detailed system of professional accreditation that is independent of employers, which would reduce the need for in-school performance review. Expert teachers would be attracted to and retained in the classroom by qualifying for higher remuneration.

Published: Victorian Humanist, August 2007: 4