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Rewards gone wrong...


Yesterday Julia Gillard announced the roll-out of the first bonus payments for high-achieving teachers in the Australian school system. Teachers aren't paid enough, that is the long and the short of it, but a one off bonus payment for only 10% of teachers whose students have achieved high scores on tests such as Naplan is just ridiculously unfair, and if anything might create a disincentive for school leavers considering a career in teaching.

If these bonus payments are not simply a bribe to keep Labor in Government (they don't get paid out until after the next election - so if you're in line for one of these payments, you'll need to vote Labor to secure it), and this becomes "the way of things" - paying bonuses for high Naplan scores - two outcomes can be predicted. The first is easy to predict, teachers who want the money will put pressure on their students to perform on tests (which is not the same as intrinsic learning), and that pressure will also come to bear on parents of low performing students - more homework, more children being kept in through lunch and recess for not doing reading homework (or forgetting to record that they HAVE done their reading home), it will for further pressure on families (the arguments that often occur between parents and children when children are tired and don't want to do homework but parents feel obligated to meet the teacher and the school's expectations), some students being ostracised because they cannot perform on the tests (notes being sent home to parents asking their permission to exclude their child from testing because it'll bring down the average score for the school).

Then there is the less obvious outcome. Being a teacher will become even more stressful. As it is, teachers must jump through multiple hoops each term to meet the Governments performance criteria (which doesn't seem to be improving literacy or numeracy in this country, anyway!); they must work through 20 cm thick folders of skills benchmarks, which often don't allow time for children to really enjoy learning, or teachers to really enjoy teaching - enjoyment is key to learning, by the way. On top of this now, if earnings become linked to a child's performance, then individual children might come to represent the reason a teacher feels (and is, honestly) underpaid.

Australia is not a country that values education - at least not based on how we remunerate our educators - it is a country that values outcomes, but at what cost? When we value all teachers, and we value the needs of all students, we will become a country that values education. While we remain focused only on the outcome, no matter the process, we will continue to see our literacy and numeracy levels drop. The United Nations Development Programme Report for 2009 had us ranked at 20 (along with 26 other countries), however, it is unclear if this reflects functional literacy (which is in rapid decline in Australia). The Industry Skills Council report, released last month and title "No More Excuses" found that 8 million Australian's in the workforce did not have sufficient language, literacy and numeracy skills to undertake training - that means they were functionally illiterate - so a 99% literacy level in Australia does not reflect functional literacy. Our functional literacy levels are not good, and they're getting worse, worse than when our parents went to school - before we improved Australia education... I personally believe this reflects the shift from valuing teachers and education, to valuing benchmarks and competition. We've lost sight of the big picture.

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