Expert Commentary

Effectiveness of educator merit pay on teacher performance

2010 report from the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University on the impact of educator merit pay on students’ performance in mathematics.

The concept of merit pay in education is simple enough: Bonuses are given to educators who succeed at their jobs based on agreed-upon criteria, which can include the results of standardized tests, evaluations or other measures. Merit pay has received support as part of the federal “Race to the Top” initiative, and a number of state and local efforts have included such programs. As with many education reform initiatives, however, criticism isn’t lacking.

The theory behind merit pay is that higher incentives for teachers will encourage them to excel at their jobs and thus raise student performance. To examine this hypothesis in a U.S. context, the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University carried out the Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT). It sought to measure the impact of bonus pay for teachers on students’ performance in mathematics between grades 5 and 8. The project’s 2010 report, “Teacher Pay for Performance,” documents the results.

The study was conducted in the Nashville school system for three years, from fall 2006 to spring 2009. Middle school mathematics teachers took part in a controlled experiment to test the effect of financial rewards for educators whose students made significant gains on standardized tests. Bonuses were substantial — up to $15,000 — and participating teachers could decide for themselves what methods might work best to improve student performance. The performance of students of a control group of educators not eligible for bonuses was also tracked.

The report’s findings include:

  • Mathematics test scores for students whose teachers were eligible for bonuses did not differ significantly from those in the control group.
  • Grade 5 students whose teachers were eligible showed better performances than those whose teachers were in the control group. These effects were not sustained, however, as the difference was not significant when the students were tested later in grade 6.
  • The surveys showed that the effect of bonus pay on students’ performance was insignificant because the teachers felt that they were already working at the optimal effort level before the experiment was put in place.

The report concludes by suggesting other approaches to raising student performance, including rewarding teachers in teams and packaging remuneration with coaching or professional development.

Tags: charter schools, children, youth, teachers