School & District Management

ED Sweetens the Deal for Evaluating Teacher Incentive Fund

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 27, 2010 2 min read
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The research this summer has not been encouraging for advocates of teacher performance-pay programs generally, but the U.S. Department of Education is relaxing inclusion rules and increasing incentives for schools willing to participate in its upcoming national evaluation of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund.

In a proposal published late last week, the department has lifted caps on the number of high-need schools in each district which can participate in the evaluation and the amount of money that can be given to districts that identify more than the minimum four matched pairs of merit-pay and control schools. In addition, it has pledged to provide additional money to give a 1 percent across-the-board bonus for all teachers, principals and other appropriate staff at schools in the control group, and to cover the cost to implement additional, more nuanced evaluations of different types of incentives.

More than ever, the department needs a large, rigorous, comprehensive evaluation to dig into the details of whether and how performance-pay programs work. As my colleague Steve Sawchuk of the Teacher Beat blog has reported, recent high-profile studies out of Chicago and Nashville have found few benefits for student achievement in merit-pay programs. The more recent of those studies came within a week of the Education Department’s delayed announcement of the latest round of Teacher Incentive Fund grantees.

In its initial call for evaluation participants, the department said it would provide up to $2 million per applicant for incentives for up to 16 high-need schools in each district. But the department said in its proposal to revise the grants that it has found so few high-quality applicants for the evaluation that it cannot limit the number of participating schools in each group and still have a muscular sample to study. The changes— particularly the 1 percent bonus for control schools—may give districts the incentive needed to win buy-in from more schools for the evaluation.

Steven Glazerman, senior research fellow at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J., and principal research director for the department’s TIF evaluation, said merit pay research to date has been in a race with the shifting political winds.

“One of the reasons it’s been very difficult to evaluate performance pay is the program often doesn’t outlast the evaluation,” Mr. Glazerman said. “It takes a while to observe a program in action before you can tell how well it works,” but he noted that in several studies officials “lost the political will” to continue the program before the evaluation concluded.

Mr. Glazerman and TIF evaluation project director Jill Constantine are still working on the actual format and parameters for the evaluation. For those who want to get your two cents in on performance pay evaluation, you can comment on these rules until October 25 here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.