New Study: Merit Pay Does Not Boost Student Achievement

Yet again, researchers have determined that paying teachers a bonus based on student performance does not  improve the achievement of those students.

A pay-for-performance study released by Vanderbilt University and the RAND Corporation followed nearly 300 Nashville Public Schools fifth- through eighth-grade teachers from 2007 to 2009. The result? No overall effect on student achievement across the entire treatment group.

“We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up?,” said Matthew Springer, executive director of Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives. “We found that the answer to that question is no.”

The study — being billed as the first scientific study in the U.S. of teacher performance pay — is only the latest blow to merit pay, which the Obama administration continues to advocate as part of its education reform strategy. The $4.5 billion “Race to the Top” competitive school funding grant program encourages states to offer merit pay as an incentive.

“Extra money is not a silver bullet,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “It must be part of a comprehensive system that invests in things that make a difference in teaching and learning, such as experience, knowledge and skills. You have to start with a base of strong, competitive professional salaries and then reward teachers for professional growth and offer mentoring, support and solid feedback to help them improve their craft.” (Read the full statement on the study from Van Roekel.)

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.

“We all must be wary of any system that creates a climate where students are viewed as part of the pay equation, rather than young people who deserve a high quality education that prepares them for their future,” says Bill Raabe, NEA’s director of Collective Bargaining and Member Benefits. “We can all do a better job of linking quality professional development and career opportunities directly to the pay system.” (Learn more about what a quality pay system looks like, according to NEA.)

Jann Spallina, a teacher in Modesto, Calif., is frustrated by merit pay. “I don’t think it would be possible for me to work harder for merit pay,” Spallina said. It “is not fair and an absurd notion. There are so many other things that affect a student’s score.”

Vanderbilt’s study comes at the end of what’s been a rough summer for merit pay proponents. In June, the Mathematica Policy Research study found that a merit pay pilot program for teachers that began in Chicago schools in 2006 had no effect on student achievement. According to the study, merit pay did not improve student standardized test scores or teacher retention – two main goals of the program paid for with a $27.5 million federal grant.

Here’s how this most recent Vanderbilt survey of Nashville’s Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) worked, as described by the university:

  • Approximately half of the nearly 300 volunteers were randomly assigned to a “treatment” group, in which they were eligible for bonuses of up to $15,000 per year on the basis of their students’ test-score gains on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP).
  • The other half were assigned to a “control” group not eligible for these bonuses. Teachers were evaluated based on an historical performance benchmark for MNPS teachers, not on competition with one another. All teachers in the treatment group had the chance to earn bonuses. (The names of participating teachers – and which group they were in – have been kept confidential by the research team.)
  • The annual bonus amounts were $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000. Over the course of the experiment, POINT paid out more than $1.27 million in bonuses. Overall, 33.6 percent of the original group received bonuses, with the average bonus being approximately $10,000.

Despite the continued negative results from studies like Vanderbilt’s, a growing number of Americans support merit pay for educators. According to the annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans said teachers should be paid on the basis of their work, and 54 percent said salary should be “somewhat closely” tied to student achievement.

Photo: Courtesy of Vanderbilt Center for Performance Incentives

  • I think it’s time we stop looking for a “one size fits all” panacea. It’s not just pay, or parent participation, or clueless administrators, or the unions, or the digital divide; it’s a combination of all of the above and more to different degrees. And to top it all off, the issues differ in severity from state to state, township to township and school to school.
    In the future another university study will be conducted on the same topic with different results and we’ll all be spinning our wheels once again (remember new math?).
    I do think the one thing that we can all agree on is that the teaching career should be compensated as any other profession and held to the same esteem so that we can continue to attract highly motivated, educated & caring teachers (and keep them!).

  • Lynn Mason

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! The timing of this article is perfect! We are currently bargaining a new contract and our district has put a pay for performance proposal on the table. This article sent to our membership can go a long ways in getting our message out. Not that we needed a study to tell us that merit pay won’t work! All they had to do was ask!

  • Carolyn Beardshear

    How, exactly, could my students’ performance in GERMAN be assessed in order to evaluate my teaching? With a test that I wrote, since there is no national test? The assumption is made that students do their best on these standardized tests. They don’t, because there is no consequence for them if they score poorly. Many students blow them off regularly and can you imagine the power we are putting in their hands if their teachers pay is tagged to their performance? I have a great personal relationship with my students, but there has to be an element of trust there and I think merit pay is assuming too much of the students.

  • Herbert Belcher

    I am in awe! We all knew merit pay [aka: principal’s buddy pay] could not work. What gets me is how TEACHER’s do not get off the butts and VOTE. Look at who they voted into office – Tea Party Republicans. I assume the female teachers love Sarah Palin.

  • I will add another argument against merit pay. This summer I attended a conference on professional learning communities. In one of the sessions we were brainstorming how the use of technology and shared resources could boost achievement for all our students, when one of the women in my group claimed, she would never consider sharing her resources since her pay was linked to her students’ performance. That statement summed up the entire argument against merit pay. It might improve (although I doubt it)performance of one particular classroom, but this is a clear example of how it hurts the school as a whole.

  • Steven Davis

    Merit pay is just another of the right-wing “remedies” for the very complicated problems of our public schools. It will be used to divide teachers from their Association and from each other. It gives administrators
    far too much control and does not hold them accountable. It is a potential political weapon that is too dangerous to load.

  • Hey, I’ve got a great idea . . . let’s pay our law makers and state education leaders on a merit pay and see how they like it, after all they should be accountable just like teachers. We could use opinion polls rating the effectiveness of them as a basis for their pay. This would be great. We could pay the President, all the Senators and Representatives on this basis. We might even correct the national debt with this policy.

  • TParsons

    Tied only to test-scores—failed.

  • Paul B

    Merit pay should not be linked to student test scores but to the teaching skill of the teacher. There should be objective measures that don’t bring the students into the rating.

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  • Kaye Novell

    1. I was on a merit pay performance pay system and the staff that did the most research re their lessons received extra money, not necessarily at all the best interactors, took them away from kids
    2. We, our unions, need to specifically point out why we need money
    a. textbook and material costs per subject has gone up 400% and why do we need these materials? ( and I often ask, who exactly is publishing texts that I don’t like or adopt)
    3. family situations are defintely an issue re helping children learn and Bill Gates cannot tell me anything different
    -maybe we need to go to more on site school campuses with student housing this young
    4. We as a teacher nation have asked for decades for more therapeutic help for families-does it take a crisis to get any; and, I think WE need to sit on the Presidental task forces re crimes, high risk factors and emotional disturbances in kids not the twin city sheriffs’
    5. I have to ignore most of all of the complexity or I cannot take care of myself and I have given up on all social media and internet exchanges as it all causes fears and increased anxiety in me and in my profession
    -I have emailed my legisltors and I receive NR-ALL DONE-BYE
    6. Sorry but we all need armed personnel in all sites (and the media does not need to know)
    -This will be a professional incentive , nuturing and safety
    8. 5 day a week PE does not mean decreased weight loss; I had it
    -once again, family interventions
    9. I would like to see many more children on music instruments or vocals, maybe in pods or by grade levels to allow all the opportunity
    10. There is tons of grant money out there; I thought districts had grant writiers; we used to; request and they will write it. I do not have this time

    some thoughts

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