Julie Bishop was on the radio the other day talking about how awful it is that her idea of performance-based pay as a way of 'improving the performance of teachers' has been knocked back by all the state governments. 'Well, it was a good idea,' she said huffily, and then segued into "never miss a chance to bash the other side" auto-spin by remarking that the state [implication: Labor] governments probably didn't have any ideas of their own.
I don't know if 'idea' is really the word she wanted. Performance-based pay for teachers is wrong in so many ways that it would take more time than anyone has to unpack it all.
For a start, implementation of the idea that there's limitless potential for 'improvement' in human 'performance' is one that, as we now know, can end up driving people to suicide. And the idea that such changes are needed begs the question of whether teachers are doing their job inadequately -- which, as is clear to anyone who has the foggiest notion of what is currently happening in schools, is manifestly not what the problem is. The only people who think schoolteachers are not grotesquely underpaid and overworked are those who have never taught in schools and don't know anyone who does. This group contains a large subset of parents who think teachers should be doing their parenting work for them.
But the main issue seems to me the total dehumanisation of both teachers and students that's written into this kind of thinking. The idea of performance-based pay rests on the belief that human effort can be satisfactorily quantified, which of course it can't. Further, it would set teachers against each other and create a climate of suspicion, envy and unrelenting hierarchy. It's the (incidentally union-busting) 'divide and conquer' method of classic wedge politics: undermine any form of collectivity by setting up a divisive infrastructure. I'd really love to know how much Bishop is aware of this herself and how much's she's simply saying what she's been told to say.
But worst of all, what this kind of thinking suggests is that a school student is some kind of empty vessel which must be filled, and which has no active part in the education process at all. It implies that the student is a passive recipient of either 'good' or 'bad' teaching and that his or her own attitudes and efforts don't come into it.
Don't these people actually remember their own childhoods? My memory of school is that how well or badly I did from year to year and subject or subject depended almost totally on my own behaviour. I got some brilliant marks for subjects taught by incompetent and/or hostile and/or burnt-out teachers, and some terrible marks for others taught by brilliant, funny, hard-working ones. And the best help I ever got out of a teacher (she brought me her own old notes on the Impressionist painters from her Fine Arts MA at the Sorbonne) came as a direct result of my showing a bit of real interest and intiative in my work.
My school assignment and exam results had everything to do with my own aptitudes and preoccupations and almost nothing to do with what happened in the classroom. And the idea either that my brilliant maths teacher or my bloody awful BLANK and BLANK teachers (this is Adelaide: there's bound to be someone reading this who knows who I'm talking about) should have been held responsible by way of their pay packets for the fact that I wasn't very good at maths but was really interested in BLANK and BLANK is ludicrous and desperately unfair.
Is this what happens when pollies blindly follow the ideology of their parties? Is the economic-rationalist notion that human beings are merely quanitifiable units something that these people really believe? Or have they just stopped bothering to see whether the ideology matches up with the daily life as we know and live it?
But in the meantime, Ms Bishop, here's an idea for improving the performance of teachers. Leave them the hell alone, and stop putting even more unwanted and unwarranted stress on them than the load they're already carrying.