This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
Critics of school and teacher accountability are finding a little too much validation in a recent study of merit pay.
The study, conducted by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives and billed as the first scientifically rigorous test of merit pay, was the result of a three-year experiment in Nashville schools.
About 300 middle school math teachers volunteered for the trial. About half were paid a set stipend for participating. The other half had a crack at bonuses of up to $15,000 if their student’s test scores improved.
The result: On the whole, students in the control group’s classrooms didn’t learn more than the students taught by teachers eligible for the extra money.
On its face, that would seem an argument against what’s become a key tenet in the Obama administration’s and others’ attempts to reform public education. The U.S. Department of Education announced last week it is giving school districts and nonprofit organizations $442 million to create merit pay programs for school employees.
But is “pay for performance” anything more than a feel-good measure aimed at scoring points with the public and tweaking the teacher unions?
No one study could answer that question, and this one falls far short of providing even half an answer.
When Vanderbilt researchers went looking for reasons why student performance didn’t improve, they considered several possible factors, including that bonuses were too small or out of reach.
In the end, they settled on just one explanation: That incentives had not “induced teachers to make substantial changes to their instructional practices or their level of effort.”
Is it any wonder then that teacher bonuses didn’t translate into higher student test scores? It’s pretty hard to improve student learning if you’re not trying.
Eighty percent of the project’s self-selected participants claimed they were already teaching effectively as they could. But researchers discounted that assertion, observing that Nashville middle schools made substantial gains in math achievement when the district faced the threat of state takeover in the final year of the study.
Clearly, something helped move the needle with those teachers – it just wasn’t money.
But what motivates existing teachers is almost besides the point. The Vanderbilt study’s biggest limitation is that it attempted to measure the effect of teacher pay on student performance, rather than the influence of teacher pay on professional recruitment.
The true promise of merit pay is not that it will somehow unleash unrealized potential among today’s teachers, or even inspire them to work harder. Rather, the goal is to attract and retain the most talented people to the profession by treating teachers like professionals who are paid for their skills rather than seniority and years of education.
That kind of fundamental change in the teaching workforce is not something that can be measured or achieved in three years – much less in isolation from other education reforms that underpin it.
The Vanderbilt study will be far from the last word on teacher merit pay.