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