Federal Performance Pay Gets Pushback at Senate Hearing

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 03, 2009 2 min read
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Alyson Klein has a must-read post over at Politics K-12. Looks like the Obama administration just ran into its first major roadblock in its attempts to more than quadruple the $97 million Teacher Incentive Fund program: Soccer-mom-turned-Senator Patty Murray, of Washington, who wanted to know whether there was evidence that TIF was effective.

Duncan doesn’t seem to have really answered her question. But that’s OK, because Teacher Beat is here to do it for you.

First, I’d love to know what exactly Murray was talking about when she said the word “effective.” Performance-pay experts will tell you that the question about whether performance pay increases student achievement is different from the question of how such grants change recruitment/retention, i.e., the composition of the workforce.

Assuming Murray was talking about student achievement, it’s true that the research on performance pay generally is thin or based on programs in foreign countries that most likely can’t be generalized to the United States. ED didn’t help matters much by letting the existing TIF grantees pick their own evaluation methodologies, few of which will be scientifically rigorous. (Congress corrected that for the $200 million in TIF funding for the stimulus bill.) There is a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem here in that it’s hard to measure the effectiveness of performance pay if you don’t fund any examples. Nevertheless, the research that’s been done on the Teacher Advancement Program seems supportive so far.

Fortunately, in the next few years we should have some more definitive answers thanks to this randomized field study in Nashville, Tenn., being conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives.

Now to throw a bit of analysis in here, and that is there is definitely something political behind all this. A possibility is that Murray is positioning for when bigger pieces of ed legislation get rolling. One of the ways things work in the Senate is that when you also get a committee assignment, you also get your own pet issue that you work on. (If you look at NCLB, you can practically see the fingerprints: Every senator got his/her pet education issue into one program or another, which is why states and districts can do a zillion different things with most of the formula grants.)

Anyway, Murray’s big education issue was class-size reduction. Last leg session, she sponsored a bill to restore a separate federal class-size-reduction program. Since that realistically probably won’t go anywhere until NCLB reauthorization gets rolling, I would not be surprised if she’d rather see the proposed TIF increase put into ">the $3 billion Title II program, much of which supports class-size reduction. And that, by the way, is what the National Education Association wants, too.

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