Cruel Optimism – Pay, Performance and Promises

Hearing today’s news about the Federal Government’s $1.2 billion spending plan for education (2018-2020) in the form of additional testing and the much maligned notion of performance-related pay (cash for results incentive) is enough to stir the educational community into uproar.

As if schools and teachers weren’t working hard enough to support students to achieve the best they can using whatever experience, research, evidence and resources they can (done with a steely resolve that doesn’t necessitate incentives to squeeze the last grade point and ounce of energy out of ourselves and students), today’s announcement smacks of mistrust and an ‘educational promise’ which Laurent Berlant (2011) could refer to as ‘cruel optimism’.

Moore and Clarke (2016), point out to us that a relationship of cruel optimism involves situations of attachment to hopes and aspirations in which not only are the latter likely to remain unfulfilled, but the very sustaining of the attachment itself has negative, constraining effects in relation to one’s life and development.”

In today’s context, rewarding teachers with cash to elevate results could divert the attention we give to what is right and good about the educational experience to the myopic drive to perform. Busting ourselves yet further because it is believed that performance will pay out in more ways than one can hang over schools like a Sword of Damocles. Could it drive a wedge by pitting colleagues against each other with questionable metrics and see competition valued over collaboration? Could we see curriculum re-design to allocate more time and resources to testing priorities? Could it also have the detrimental effect of what Stephen Ball (2003) calls ‘values schizophrenia’:

“A kind of values schizophrenia is experienced when commitment and experience within practice have to be sacrificed or compromised for impression and performance.” (Ball, 2003)

Teachers, from my experience, place great value on being trusted, exercising judgement and being treated as professionals. This is efficacy-building stuff. It really should not be complicated. However, at a local or national level, researching, informing and shaping policy or practice from the inside-out is often overlooked in favour of certainty, high-reliability or someone portentous version of ‘in the best interests’.

Many have written about the debated merits and pitfalls of performance-related pay and potential policy corruption aligned to testing including this interesting account, Diane Ravitch’s piece and the brilliant David Berliner discussing Campbell’s Law here. Deb Netolicky covers this off really well here. These are all worthy of attention, especially when consider what additional testing, adjusted instruction, pressure to perform and value reorientation will do to teachers and students alike.

I’m fascinated with Moore and Clarke’s idea that within the context of ‘cruel optimism’ teachers largely fall into three categories:

  • Teachers who are broadly supportive of policy;
  • Teachers who ‘substantially reject or resist’ key policy aspects and look for opportunities to practice alternative approaches without detriment to students or colleagues or even the institution;
  • Teachers who are ‘unhappy with key aspects’ of policy but feel they have no option than to comply within a system that they feel is unfair.

Given today’s announcements, where do you see yourself? I know where I stand. I just hope this isn’t a fait accompli and we will have to kick into line. #flipthesystem


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