Chicago Study Throws Cold Water on Merit Pay

A merit pay pilot program for teachers that began in Chicago schools in 2006 has had no effect on student achievement, according to a Mathematica Policy Research report released this month.

According to the study, merit pay did not improve student standardized test scores or teacher retention – two main goals of the program.

The program started with 10 participating schools, with the goal of enrolling 40 schools by 2011. One of the original participating schools has been closed due to poor performance while some other schools have opted out of the program.

Schools that participated in the program for two years scored lower on standardized testing than schools in their first year of the program, casting doubt on the theory that performance-based pay will improve student outcomes over time.

Merit pay is receiving substantial attention at the national and state levels as a way to reform the education system, and has been implemented by several states competing for federal dollars through the Race to the Top grants competition.

For the last two years, the Chicago pilot program was funded with a $27.5 million federal grant.

Critics of merit pay say that it is unsupported by research, and that evaluating an individual teacher’s performance based on student standardized testing is extremely difficult, given the many factors outside the classroom that can affect student achievement.

According to Kitty Boles, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, merit pay is an old idea – it was first tried in 18th century England – that has consistently failed to achieve desired results.

In fact, two researchers from Columbia University recently published a paper evaluating the New York City Bonus System, a similar merit-pay initiative, and found the program has been unsuccessful.