Fixing What's Not Broken


No one should be very surprised at the Federal Government’s foray into merit pay for teachers. It resonates well, and joins a steady flow of ideologically motivated messages about poor school performance, ‘dumbed-down’ curriculum, ‘values-neutral’ schools and biased, politically correct teachers.


Proposing merit pay is a no-risk strategy for any government: Good teachers are essential and parents are always anxious about their children’s learning.

It doesn’t matter that such messages are unbalanced, poorly researched or even mischievous, and have little to do with day-to-day life in your average school it all makes good copy. It creates the impression of crisis, helped along by judicious political dog-whistling which ensures that the crisis somehow belongs exclusively to public schools.

Proposals for merit pay meet all these essential political criteria, and parents will almost certainly support the idea of having greater control over their children’s teachers. In the age of anxiety about almost everything, who wouldn’t? What remains to be proven is how it will work and whether it meets any demonstrated need.

In the political sense, the ‘how’ of merit pay doesn’t matter. In line with other proposals chaplains in schools being a recent example the headlines are far more important than the details. As public servants know, the details can be made up on the run, and often are. The ‘why’ of merit pay will also be just a minor detail it will be enough to simply recycle yet another anecdote of falling school standards, and add some evidence from an obscure university research paper or think tank.

However, the reason for merit pay for teachers deserves a closer look and this means revisiting the issue of school standards. When commentators and politicians make assertions about falling educational standards, they are usually quite selective in their evidence and ignore the International comparisons which consistently have Australia performing alongside the best in the world.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing has Australia equal second in literacy, sixth in the world in mathematics, and fourth in problem solving. Another study, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has Australia well above the international average in science, behind nine countries. The TIMMS study shows our performance in mathematics ranking lower, but even then we are well ahead of the average.

Maybe it is our lower performance in this one subject which has created a standards crisis and the need for merit pay in Australia. If this is the case, the countries ranked lower than us must be in permanent meltdown. However, our apparent success hasn’t stopped the Federal Minister for Education, Julie Bishop, claiming, in a recent speech in Brisbane, that academic standards in our classrooms are declining.

But even she seems confused; In the same speech she said, ‘I am not suggesting that Australian students are underachieving.’

Of course the critics might then point to evidence of falling standards over time. Yet the most recent Productivity Commission Report on Government Services can only point to one instance of falling performance by Years 3, 5 and 7 students across Australia in reading, writing and numeracy.

Undaunted by what is at best conflicting evidence; the critics dig out unscientific surveys and recycle anecdotes from employers to prove that standards are in decline. The tabloid media does its bit by screening footage of some hapless child, struggling to spell ‘receipt,’ or to multiply six by 10. This is followed by a series of talking heads, starting with self-styled experts, saying that the younger generation aren’t taught as well as we were.

Raising doubts about declining standards is not about excuse-making for schools. Schools need to be a big part of the solution to any shortcomings, real or imaginary, in the achievement of children. We have seen very productive changes in Australian schools in recent decades. These include the vocational and training agenda, the focus on learning and leadership, the skilful use of test results to improve teaching and learning, professional development of staff and of course the use of technology to improve learning.

But schools have also had to absorb a grab-bag of unproven and often discredited practice which adds little to the achievement of students, but resonates well in the electorate. This includes serial testing at every turn, constant debate about school and student reports, the focus on choice and competition, and the 4000-year-old debate about falling standards. Most are solutions in constant search for a problem, driven by a zeal for marketplace reforms which don’t transfer at all well to schooling.

What it also does is successfully divert attention away from real problems which can’t be boiled down into simple policies or blamed on teachers. The real problems are less popular and not well understood, but may be far more important if we are to make progress for all of our young people. These include the private/public mix, social geography, class and mobility and income and wealth differentials. The persistence of these deep-seated structural and social issues represents a substantial failure of political leadership.

It is far easier to focus on what is allegedly wrong with our schools and create multiple reform agendas and priorities to fix what usually isn’t broken.

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