Published Online: November 9, 2009
Published in Print: November 11, 2009, as Researchers Probe Performance Incentives for Teachers
Includes correction(s): April 4, 2012

Researchers Probe Pay Incentives for Teachers

Book Explores Range of Approaches to Using Pay for Educational Change

While much of the national debate over performance incentives for teachers has centered on bonuses based on student test scores, a new book suggests that such incentives come in all shapes and sizes, and offers some new research on little-studied aspects of those strategies.

In the book, Performance Incentives: Their Growing Impact on American K-12 Education, researchers recruited by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, offer findings on the wide landscape of performance incentives used in schools in this country and around the world. For instance, they explore how promises of better pay can be used to entice teachers to hard-to-staff schools, track what happens when teachers design their own performance-pay plans, look at the legal aspects of traditional pay-for-performance plans, and present studies from abroad on educators’ experiences with cash inducements. Growing out of a national conference the center hosted in 2008, the 336-page volume was published last month by the Brookings Institution Press of Washington.

“The policy context and the direction in which school districts and state education agencies are moving is toward reforming teacher compensation,” said Matthew G. Springer, the book’s editor and the director of the federally funded center in Nashville, Tenn. “Most people would agree that there’s likely to be a more effective and efficient strategy than a single-salary schedule.”

Weeding Out

Two chapters, for example, explore the potential of performance incentives for weeding out ineffective teachers and retaining good ones early in their careers. To get some baseline information for that question, researchers Martin R. West and Matthew M. Chingos drew on data from Florida to see whether bad teachers left on their own—even without performance incentives. They focused on 5th grade teachers across the state who entered the profession between the 2001-02 and 2004-05 school years, and followed each one for up to five years.

Teachers’ Attitudes Toward Various Pay Plans

What they found was that the teachers who were least effective, as judged by their students’ learning gains, were more likely than other teachers to leave the schools where they had started their careers. They tended to find jobs, however, elsewhere in the Florida public school system.

“So the system as a whole is remarkably unresponsive to teacher quality,” said Mr. West, an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Performance pay could be part of a set of policies to change that.”

In another chapter, Mr. Springer and co-author Lori L. Taylor share research on a Texas merit-pay program that seemed to accomplish just that: Teachers who qualified for bonuses were more likely to stay on the job, while teachers who got no awards were more likely to leave their schools.

The findings are based on a three-year study of a now-defunct program known as the Governor’s Educator Excellence Grant program, which distributed grants ranging from $60,000 to $220,000 to 100 of the highest-performing high-poverty schools in Texas.

Modest Sums, Shared

Unlike some other pay-for-performance programs, though, that one required schools to involve teachers in deciding how to distribute the money. The researchers found that the teachers preferred giving modest awards and spreading them widely, rather than offering fewer, larger cash bonuses. Most of the bonuses, in fact, were less than the minimum $3,000 recommended by the state.

Teacher-Designed Performance-Pay Plans in Texas

Teachers favored plans that gave a relatively small amount of money to a larger number of educators.

“Teachers that received $1,300 or more were more likely to stay in school than would have been expected without the bonus,” Mr. Springer said. “At $3,000, teachers’ probability of turnover was cut in half.” However, the latest findings from this study, released separately by the center last week, suggest that the program failed to translate into any significant gains in achievement for students—possibly because the bonuses were so modest.In another chapter, William L. Sanders, the Tennessee researcher known for pioneering the use of “value added” assessments in education, offers data showing how performance incentives might be used to attract good teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Value-added calculations are used to measure teacher effectiveness based on the learning gains their students make from one school year to the next, rather than students’ overall achievement.

Mr. Sanders and his co-authors calculated value-added scores for a sample of 6,000 teachers of grades 4-8 across Tennessee and in its four largest school districts. The researchers found that teachers judged to be highly effective remained highly effective when they switched schools—even when moving from a relatively affluent school to one with a higher concentration of poor students.

Mr. Sanders acknowledged that the study is small—only 76 teachers moved to more-disadvantaged schools—but he said his findings suggest that schools can use value-added methods to reliably identify a pool of eligible teachers for incentives aimed at recruiting good teachers to hard-to-staff schools.

“There’s very little risk that if someone is highly effective in one set of circumstances, they’re going to be ineffective in another,” said Mr. Sanders, who is the senior manager for value-added research and assessment at the SAS Institute, based in Cary, N.C.

Vol. 29, Issue 11, Page 10

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Correction: 
A previous version of this story misquoted William L. Sanders at the SAS Institute. In fact, he said, “There’s very little risk that if someone is highly effective in one set of circumstances, they’re going to be ineffective in another.”

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