Performance-based pay for teachers is way to go

2011-04-09 13:15

Bill Gates once suggested that instead of basing teachers’ pay increases on seniority and degrees earned, education departments should reward the most effective teachers for taking on larger classes or teaching at needy schools.

Gates was looking for smarter ways to teach under circumstances where public education budgets in the United States and elsewhere were under pressure.

We, too, should find smarter ways to deliver proper teaching in the classroom.

We spend a fifth of the national budget on education and have disproportionately little to show for it.

Everyone agrees that something dramatic should happen, but it seems as if incremental increases in a generous national budget are not accompanied by bold plans to improve quality.

What would be a bold plan? Like Bill Gates, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is convinced that we should rebuild the education budget based on excellence.

The most fundamental part of rebuilding the budget is to focus on teachers. There is nothing more important than excellent teachers led by an excellent principal.

Excellent, committed and caring teachers will use whatever resources are available to them to teach the basics of writing, reading and arithmetic – and once those are mastered, simulate the imagination in the sciences and humanities.

This sounds all well and good, but what do the teachers think?

In preparation for the basic education budget debate, scheduled for April 13, I interviewed eight life sciences teachers at the Africa Genome Education Institute’s Teaching Biology Project conference.

I asked them what they thought would constitute a bold new deal for teachers.

Perhaps because they were some of the best teachers in Western Cape, salaries were not their first concern.

They worried firstly about class size, stability in the curriculum and discipline at schools.

They understood that what they do each day as educators is much more important than what they say they do.

Salaries are an issue, though not the kind you or I would normally expect it to be.

Although they would like to drive nicer cars, it is the fact that they cannot afford to buy books, subscribe to magazines or have affordable access to the internet – the tools of the teacher’s trade – that frustrates them immensely.

Asked whether they regularly got to the theatre or concerts, they laughed.

Although they all wanted to live in a nice home, their housing subsidy (about R800 a month) leaves them – especially those starting up a life – living in circumstances of great material anxiety.

Their children do not get fee discounts and their medical aid covers only the basics, if at all.

The pension system, they believe, is not bad.

To put it into perspective, a deputy principal of a Cape southern suburbs school – degrees in hand and 20 years of experience – takes home after deductions just more than R12 000 a month.

Due to financial pressure, most teachers understandably jump at additional work (a tutorship here, some moonlighting there) that may compromise their core job.

What did they think of Gates’s proposal? The unions would not like it, they said. To introduce performance-based pay requires a system to measure in-class performance – and the unions sadly believe in equal misery for all.

Gates faced a similar response in his country, but the issue was for him so important that he was willing to “kick the beehive”, as he put it, in the interest of the child.

Still, the teachers recommended introducing it for school principals and starting a pilot to test a performance-based system for teachers.

They also suggested developing a clearer career track for teachers and getting the unions and professional associations to provide real services for teachers – such as fighting for tax allowances for book purchases and laptop computers.

Politicians all stand up and say teachers do the most fundamental thing of all by conveying the cumulative history of human civilisations to youth, yet we pay them a pittance.

They should be paid better, with real benefits added, and they should be paid smarter.

Professional evaluation and the introduction of performance pay is a beehive worth kicking.

Where do we find the money? Take a close look at the national budget, cut out the fat, make some hard choices and send more money to the provinces for teachers.

Focus the resources on the teachers and trim the overheads.

Fund schools properly and minimise the administration and legion of civil servants.

Appoint people who can do the job – and insist on performance-based accountability.

Be bold, be smart and progress will unfold before our eyes.

» ?James is an MP and Democratic Alliance shadow minister of basic education

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