Teaching Profession

Merit Pay for Teachers Can Lead to Higher Test Scores for Students, a Study Finds

By Brenda Iasevoli — April 11, 2017 3 min read
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Teacher participation in a merit-pay program led to the equivalent of four extra weeks of student learning, according to a new analysis of 44 studies of incentive-pay initiatives in the United States and abroad.

The U.S. merit-pay studies on their own showed increased student learning equivalent to three additional weeks of schooling.

“The findings suggest that merit pay is having a pretty significant impact on student learning,” said study author Matthew G. Springer, an assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. “Now we need more research to figure out what an optimal merit-pay program looks like and how it is designed.”

Teacher Merit Pay and Student Test Scores: A Meta-Analysis,” by Springer with graduate students Lam D. Pham and Tuan D. Nguyen analyzed incentive-pay studies that had been in place for four years on average and with awards ranging from $26 to $20,000 in U.S. dollars. Awards were given as one-time bonuses or permanent salary increases. The typical award size in the United States ranges between $2,500 and $3,000. As might be expected, the smallest awards are from merit-pay programs in developing countries.

In light of evidence that merit-pay programs can result in better test scores, Springer said the next question researchers must ask is, “What type of merit-pay program works best?” Programs can be designed in a number of ways: in terms of minimum and maximum award amounts, whether or not individual teachers compete with one another or work together to earn the award, or the size of the scores that students must achieve in order for teachers to be eligible for an award.

A surprising finding from the Vanderbilt study was that the seven incentive-pay programs that provided on-the-job training for participants did not show a statistically significant effect on student test scores. Yet the training component is a requirement of the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants that allow states and districts to create performance-based compensation systems with the goal of increasing the number of effective teachers in low-performing schools and improving student achievement. A study of the Teacher Incentive Fund shows that the performance-pay program has some effect, but not a particularly convincing one.

The authors did find that merit-pay programs aimed at groups of teachers who worked together to earn incentive pay, as opposed to individuals competing against one another, resulted in an effect more than two times the average. “The group incentive-pay system may encourage teachers to collaborate more, and so teachers end up learning new instructional practices or new ways to approach the curriculum,” Springer conjectured. “As a result, they become better teachers.”

Still, the authors can’t yet tell what exactly teachers are doing to produce the score increases. “Now we need to dig deeper and think a bit harder about what is happening,” Springer said. “Are teachers working longer days, differentiating instruction, or are they gaming the system with test prep?” Springer suggests in-class observations and one-on-one interviews are needed to make these determinations.

What’s more, could the same results be achieved by a more cost-effective strategy, such as a comprehensive professional development program? Unfortunately, said Springer, he and his fellow authors were not able to determine whether the relative success of merit-pay programs was worth the overall cost. Some of the studies did not report exactly how much each teacher received in extra pay. Plus, Springer said, it would have been difficult to make cost-of-living adjustments to account for teachers living in different parts of the United States and in other countries. But cost effectiveness will be a topic for future studies.

Yet another limitation of the study, according to Springer, was that it looked at only the motivational effect of merit-pay programs. Springer plans to examine further how these programs affect the comings and goings of teachers. Highest performers are most likely to be rewarded in a merit-pay system and therefore remain in the profession, while those who are not rewarded will most likely leave the profession. Some studies indicate that these effects are occurring, and Springer finds them encouraging. But he said the hypotheses will have to be borne out by future studies.

“The bottom line is the single-salary pay schedule does not allow systems to reward the highest performing teachers,” Springer said. “These teachers deserve a six-figure salary, but we’ll never get there with a single-salary schedule that would require all teachers of equal experience and degree attainment to get paid the same amount. It’s just impossible.”

Photo: Getty

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