Teacher bonus pay barely moves the dial on test scores

Teacher bonus pay barely moves the dial on test scores

(District of Columbia) New research from within the U.S. Department of Education itself suggests that yet another controversial educational policy pushed by the Obama administration has produced only modest gains.

Like educator evaluations and nationalized curriculum standards, the effort to incentivize teachers to do better in the classroom with cash bonuses has resulted in only small improvements on student achievements in reading and math, according to a study out this month from the federal Institute of Education Sciences.

Begun in 2006, the Teacher Incentive Fund, or TIF, provided close to $1.8 billion to districts over a six year period. According to analysis of 62 local educational agencies that received grants in 2010, the net impact on student performance wasn’t impressive.

“After three years of implementation, the average student in a control school earned a math score at approximately the 34th percentile of student achievement statewide,” the federal research team reported. “The average student in a treatment school earned a math score at approximately the 36th percentile—a gain of 2 percentile points. Similarly, the impact on reading achievement after Year 3 lifted the average student in these schools from the 36th to the 37th percentile. These differences translated to a gain of about 4 weeks of additional learning in a typical 36-week school year.”

Like the Race to the Top competition, the Investing in Innovation Fund grants—and, to some extent, the School Improvement Grants—the Obama administration attempted early on to put big dollars behind progressive ideas that started out full of promise and potential. But the American public education system is a complex web of social and economic forces that are not easily turned.

The concept of giving teachers additional pay when students succeed isn’t new. In fact, it was perhaps most famously backed by a Republican, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was one of a host of ballot measures Schwarzenegger introduced in 2005 in an ill-fated effort to restructure key elements of state governance.

Under the Obama version, districts that were awarded the funds were required to measure teacher and principal effectiveness using student achievement growth. The bonus was intended to incentivize classroom performance, thus the program guide called for large monetary awards that were challenging to earn.

Finally, participating districts had to encourage pay opportunities for educators to take on additional responsibilities and to provide professional development to teachers who wanted more help.

The new research showed that only some of the benchmarks set at the outset were followed.

One key failing, the report noted, was that many districts didn’t follow through with offering large pay bonuses.

The highest-performing teachers earned an average award of close to $7,800, which was about four times the average bonus of $1,900. “Yet, most teachers received a bonus, which, on average, was smaller than suggested by the TIF grant guidance,” the study authors said.

They also pointed out that overall, 70 percent of the participating teachers were given a performance bonus—a fact that suggests that the bonus was not challenging to earn.

Still, the researchers said there are some important lessons that might be drawn from the program.

“Although the overall impact of pay-for-performance on student achievement was small, impacts were larger in some districts than in others,” the study said. “This raises the question of whether particular ways of designing or implementing their TIF programs could lead to larger impacts. However, none of the characteristics we examined could help explain observed differences in student achievement impacts across districts.”

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