Merit Based Teacher Pay

A recent study concluded that offering teachers performance bonuses does not actually increase students’ achievements, according to an article in The Washington Post.

            The study was conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt. The study rewarded Nashville, Tennessee public school math teachers in grades 5 through 8 with $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 performance bonuses when they reached annual student achievement marks. Roughly 300 teachers participated, and half were assigned to a control group that could not receive any bonuses; the other half in the experimental group could receive bonuses.

            Many of the teachers’ salaries were between $40,000 and $50,000, making the bonuses attractive. The study limited other variables, such as professional development and mentoring.

The study concluded no discernible improvements in test results between students taught by teachers with bonuses and those who were not. This study was the first scientific review of achievement incentives, according to its authors.

            Despite these results, many public schools have recently adopted this form of teacher compensation.

            Advocates of merit-based salaries said that the study was too narrow and did not measure a wide range of professional development measures that Obama, Bill Gates and other advocates said were pivotal to success.

The Obama administration and other foundations are strongly pushing merit-based teachers’ salaries through the $4.35 billion federal education plan, Race to the Top. There has been much debate on this topic since it was proposed.

            "Pay reform is often thought to be a magic bullet," said Matthew Springer, a Vanderbilt University education professor who led the study. "That doesn't appear to be the case here. We need to develop more thoughtful and comprehensive ways of thinking about compensation. But at the same time, we're not even sure whether incentive pay is an effective strategy for improving the system itself."

            Federal funding for performance bonuses has increased from $100 million a year– when Obama first took office in 2009 – to the now $400 million a year.

            Federal officials said that a number of initial studies showed promising results. They said they are planning a comprehensive review of the program, shortly.

            "While this is a good study, it only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder," said Peter Cunningham, assistant U.S. education secretary for communications and outreach. "What we are trying to do is change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better while rewarding and incentivizing the best to teach in high-need schools, hard to staff subjects. This study doesn't address that objective."