A recent article in The Times of London (8 September 2009) reports on an experiment in a New York school to investigate the correlation between teacher remuneration and learner performance.

The eight teachers have been hand-picked from among 600 applicants; the 120 learners are nine- and ten-year olds, mostly immigrants from the Dominican Republic, who come from a low-income Manhattan neighbourhood and who have poor academic histories.

Could we use the incentive of higher salaries to attract the best applicants, reward excellence, and weed out stragglers?

Teachers are to be paid $125 000 each a year and a further $25 000 in performance bonuses. In return, they will submit to rigorous assessments of their performance and work from 8 am to 6 pm every day. They will sit in on one another's lessons and have daily discussions about how their teaching could be improved. Instead of taking long school holidays, they will take part in workshops through the summer vacation. The experiment, if successful, could be used to reward excellence, weed out stragglers, and attract the best applicants for jobs, says the project's originator, Zeke Vanderhoek.

How would this work in South Africa? Could we use the incentive of higher salaries to attract the best applicants, reward excellence, and weed out stragglers? The academic performance of our learners and the rate at which so many of them drop out of high school suggest that there are just too many stragglers to weed out. And anyway, who would dare do the weeding in the face of the powerful union lobby? And if the stragglers were to be weeded out through a performance management process, would we have enough teachers with whom to replace them?

This last question leads inevitably to the issue of teacher shortages. Three years ago, 6 500 learners enrolled in teacher education programmes in South African universities. This year, according to the director-general of the department of education, Duncan Hindle, the number of students graduating from faculties/schools of education will be 9 000, escalating to 12 000 by 2011. The increased enrolment - due largely to the introduction of the Funza Lushaka bursary scheme - is sufficient, says Hindle, to meet replacement demand.

If learner performance is indeed a function of teacher performance, then we need far more than 12 000 new teachers a year to replace those who should be performance managed out of the system.

But is this the real issue? When the academic performance of our learners falls way below that of their international peers in developed and many developing countries alike - as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) have shown - is it merely a question of meeting the replacement demand occasioned by retirement, resignation, medical boarding and death?

The problem with this reasoning, however, is that learner performance is not exclusively a function of teacher competence. While research indicates that the skill of a teacher is far more important than a school's resources or curriculum in educating a child, socio-economic background exerts the strongest influence on learner performance.

In South Africa, where the majority of learners - and possibly even teachers - come from poor socio-economic backgrounds, incompetent teachers cannot be held solely responsible for inferior learner performance.

What does all of this point to? To the uncomfortable realisation that there are no quick fixes to the education challenges facing our country; we need massive social upliftment as much as we need ‘more and better teachers', to quote the department of education.

What we can do immediately, however, is begin to change attitudes to the teaching profession. We can do this by exercising flexibility in remunerating teachers (rewarding outstanding teaching financially, differentiating teacher pay on the basis of subject, level, and school location), dismissing demonstrably dismal teachers, and promoting teaching as a profession through the media and in schools. All while recognising that the best recruitment tool remains the role-modelling of the teacher her/himself.

Will more pay improve learner outcomes? Remuneration is important; but we cannot put a price on good teaching. The Times article is entitled ‘Is any teacher worth a salary of $150 000?'

There are no quick fixes to the education challenges facing our country; we need massive social upliftment as much as we need ‘more and better teachers'. . .

In response to it, a reader wrote: ‘What a silly question! I'd like to replace it with two questions:
(1) Is anyone worth a salary of $150 000? (2) Is anyone worth more to society than a really good teacher? Plenty of people get paid way more than $150 000 a year. Not a single one of them is worth one good teacher. Think it through. Although many parents bring their children up well, teachers have the greatest chance to influence all our children - all the people who make up the next generation of the human race, for pity's sake! What job could possibly be as important as that?'

Michael Cosser is a chief research specialist in the Education, Science and Skills Development research programme. His most recent monograph, Ambitions Revised, has just been published.