School & District Management

Reaction Pours In to Performance-Pay Study

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 22, 2010 2 min read
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A rigorous experimental study of an incentive-pay program for teachers finds no effects on student achievement, an indication that teachers didn’t change their practice in such a way as to cause student scores to rise.

The study was explicitly designed to answer the question of whether monetary incentives alone can spur improvements to teaching. The answer, by this study at least, appears to be no. Read my full Education Week story for the details of the study, the findings, and how they fit within the body of experimental research on merit pay.

But equally as important as the findings are how they’re interpreted in our little corner of the edu-policy world, and how they might shape future policymaking—what we in the journalism profession call the “day two” story.

Reactions are starting to pour in. First off is the response of the teachers’ unions.

The American Federation of Teachers’ president, Randi Weingarten, offers the opinion that while the study shows that performance pay is not a “silver bullet,” the practice might be coupled with lots of other teacher support to better effect. “There is a role for performance pay as part of a robust education reform plan, but as this and several other studies show, it doesn’t work by itself to boost test scores,” she said in a statement.

Echoing the head of his union’s Tennessee state affiliate, the president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, said in a release that he wasn’t surprised by the findings. “We need a broader approach to improving teacher practice and student achievement. As demonstrated by the findings, the answer is not as simple as providing bonuses to teachers,” he said. They need supports to help them improve their knowledge and skills, he added.

Which, it turns out, is harder to figure out how to do than you’d expect, because the research base on professional development is not all that much more developed than the research on incentive pay. There are only a handful of experiments to show that professional development is successful, and they are mostly quite small in size; there are even fewer such studies on newer, site-based forms of development. (There is certainly anecdotal and cross-cultural evidence to suggest that site-based development is better than one-off workshops, and one hopes that researchers will continue to dig into this.)

A second thing to think about: Will this finding be bad news for existing bonus-pay programs, especially in a time of fiscal austerity? Already, several news stories suggest that a few districts with bonus programs are feeling the heat. Ericka Mellon of The Houston Chronicle discusses the ASPIRE program in Texas within the context of the Nashville study findings. She quotes an official there who underscores that that program is more comprehensive than the (intentionally) narrowly designed Nashville program.

The U.S. Department of Education is taking a similar tack. Rumor has it that the ED is planning to announce the next slate of grantees under the federal Teacher Incentive Fund this week. (Talk about bad timing.) Already the department is doing damage control, suggesting that its guidelines for that federal performance-pay program are broader than the design of the bonus-program studied in Nashville.

What do you think should be next on the docket for research on performance-based compensation?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.