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Performance Pay Has Little Merit

“We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives—Does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes?—and we found that it does not.”

In what is described as the first scientifically rigorous study of merit pay, researchers concluded that "pay for performance" alone does not work.

Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives conducted a three–year study in Nashville, Tennessee schools  before concluding that rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of any other support programs, does not raise student test scores.

“We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives—Does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes?—and we found that it does not,” Matthew Springer, executive director of the Center, said. “These findings should raise the level of debate to test more nuanced solutions.”

Paying teachers bonuses based upon their performance has been a controversial issue for years and is a major component in the current wave of school reform including Race To The Top, but until this report had not been subjected to in-depth scientific research.

This study has practical application in Maine’s 2010 election as gubernatorial candidates Paul LePage and Eliot Cutler are proponents of performance pay.

Merit pay is also gaining popular support as shown in the latest Gallup Poll based upon the misconception that it will improve student learning, so educators may expect to hear more about it in future contract negotiations.

The Center’s data-based conclusions confirm what Mainers’ practical application had proven over the years. After performance pay failed in such diverse communities as SAD 31 Howland and Cape Elizabeth, MEA members concluded that those compensation systems were without merit.

The only alternative compensation program that is working well in Maine is Portland’s Professional Learning Salary System that rewards teachers for instructional leadership and for professional development that results in the acquisition of skills and knowledge sought by the school system.

FMI on Portland’s compensation system.

On the whole the study found that students in the control group’s classrooms did not learn more than students in the classrooms of teachers eligible for performance pay.

When researchers tried to find reasons why the student test scores did not improve, they considered several alternative explanations, including that the bonuses were too small or out of reach. In the end, they concluded that the incentives had not “induced teachers to make substantial changes to their instructional practices or their level of effort.”

The Nashville study took place over the 2007–2009 school years, tracking nearly 300 middle school math teachers. Half of the volunteers were randomly assigned to a “treatment” group in which they were eligible for bonuses of up to $15,000 based on their students’ test–score gains on Tennessee’s standardized exams.

The Vanderbilt study was supported by the local and state education associations and local and state authorities. Their full report is available.

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