Is merit pay a flop? Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) offered big bonuses to Nashville math teachers in grades 5-8 for raising students’ test scores. Fifth graders improved in the second and third years, but there was no lasting improvement in student performance, concluded researchers at Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives.
The study used a control group and calculated students’ progress using value-added measures. There was heavy attrition as teachers were reassigned or left the district.
In surveys of participants, 80 percent said they didn’t change their teaching in hopes of earning a bonus, according to the Hechinger Report. Teachers’ students had to hit the 95th percentile to earn a $15,000 bonus, the 90th percentile for $10,000 and the 80th for a $5,000 reward. Many teachers just missed the cut-off.
The fact that many fifth-grade teachers teach multiple subjects to the same students may have been a reason for the positive impact of merit pay found in fifth grade, according to the study’s authors. But “the effect did not last. By the end of 6th grade it did not matter whether a student’s 5th grade math teacher had been in the treatment or control group,” the study said.
While “bonus pay alone” didn’t improve student outcomes, “more nuanced” compensation ideas should be tested, said Matthew Springer, executive director of the National Center on Performance Incentives.
Merit pay opponents say the study proves merit pay is worthless. Others claim the real issue is not whether bonuses motivate teachers to work harder.
Under Arne Duncan, the Education Department is pushing performance pay, writes Stephen Sawchuk on Teacher Beat. New grantees will be announced this month “under a federal program designed to seed merit-pay programs for teachers and principals.”
“While this is a good study, it only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder,” a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said in an e-mail. “What we are trying to do is change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better while rewarding and incentivizing the best to teach in high need schools and hard-to-staff subjects.”
Before the results were out, Rick Hess wrote that it would tell us nothing because it looked only at whether teachers will work “harder” for money, like rats trying to earn extra food pellets. “Serious people” hope that “rethinking teacher pay can help us reshape the profession to make it more attractive to talented candidates, more adept at using specialization, more rewarding for accomplished professionals, and a better fit for the twenty-first century labor force.” The study asked the wrong question, he concludes.
Eduwonk agrees that merit pay is a way to improve the teaching force of the future, not a way to make teachers work harder or better.
It sends a signal that in this field, performance and excellence matters. Right now the signal is that everyone gets treated alike, as widgets, regardless of how well or how poorly you do your job.
A “surprising number of people are saying this somehow settles the debate about performance pay,” Eduwonk also notes. “And funny, they don’t say that about single studies that don’t confirm their views.”
However, performance pay should be judged on performance, argues Intercepts, who links to the response from the AFT, which sees a “a role” for performance pay, and from the NEA, which calls it “only the latest blow” to the idea. Intercepts writes:
It’s funny to see NEA suddenly equating “student achievement” with the results of a “single standardized test” (page 13) – in this case, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) math test.
The Tennessee results aren’t all rosy for the teachers’ unions . . . if your goal is to raise student math scores, and a $15,000 bonus to math teachers didn’t do it, why would giving all teachers more money have any effect?
“What happens next is just as much a political question as an education one,” concludes Intercepts. Very true.
Update: Rick Hess publishes a response to the study by Tom Kane, a Harvard professor who’s heading the Gates Foundation’s research into teacher performance, evaluation, and pay. Kane writes:
It’s a well-done study of a not-very-interesting question. Merit pay for teachers could impact student achievement via three distinct routes: by encouraging teachers to work harder, by encouraging talented and skilled teachers to remain in teaching, by enticing talented and skilled people to enter teaching. The study was designed to answer a narrow question: can you make the average teacher work harder with monetary incentives? They did not report any results on the likelihood that more effective teachers would remain in teaching. Nor did they design the study to study entry into teaching.
We know there are huge differences in student achievement gains in different teachers’ classrooms. The authors confirmed that result. However, the impact of the specific incentive they tested depends on what underlies the differences in teacher effectiveness–effort vs. talent and accumulated skill. I’ve never believed that lack of teacher effort–as opposed to talent and skills–was the primary issue underlying poor student achievement gains. Rather, the primary hope for merit pay is that it will encourage talented teachers to remain in the classroom or to enter teaching.
Kane thinks “more meaningful tenure review” is “the most likely route of impact for teacher effectiveness policies.”
By the way, Corey Bunje Bower, a Vanderbilt PhD student, writes that a “reliable source” says Hess knew the results of the study before he wrote the pre-announcement column saying the results don’t matter. I’m reluctant to take the word of an anonymous source over the word of Rick Hess.
Hess says someone told him the results after he’d written the column.