Does Merit Pay Work (Redux)?

Yet another study, this one from Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives (boy that's specific) in the Times.

The study released Tuesday by Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives researchers found that students in classrooms where teachers received bonuses saw the same gains as the classes where educators got no incentive.

"I think most people agree today that the current way in which we compensate teachers is broken," said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study. "But we don't know what the better way is yet.

They state that 5-8th grade teachers in Nashville public schools over 3 years from 2007-2009 could make between $5k-$15K annually, depending on how their students tested.

A bit issue here as in a study in Florida is that you are talking about individual bonuses which tend to pit teachers against each other. Maybe merit pay would be better for team-based teaching or school-wide merit pay. Does merit pay make a mediocre teacher try harder? Can money alone do that or would a school/district need to add more professional development to kick it up?

The Department of Ed had its own take on the research:

"It only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder," said Sandra Abrevaya, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. "What we are trying to do is change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better while rewarding and incentivizing the best to teach in high need schools, hard to staff subjects."

Really? That's what merit pay is to the DOE - an incentive for teachers to teach harder-to-staff subjects in high schools? Odd.

Then you have this: if teachers are getting better test scores out of their students, are teachers "better" teachers and are their students "brighter?"

The Gates Foundation is funding a $100 million grant in one district in Florida to try to figure this out and fine-tune it.

From CBS news:

The Superintendent in that district said, "We're committed to make sure we get the program right, that it's fair, that it's equitable."

In fact, it appears to have worked at Sulphur Springs. The "F" the school got two years ago is gone. It became a "B"-rated school this year.


Eric M said…
I think most people agree today that the current way in which we compensate teachers is broken," said Matthew Springer, executive director of the Vanderbilt center and lead researcher on the study. "But we don't know what the better way is yet.

Yeah, it's broken, because in teaching, when you have more experience, you actually get worse?


Not in my experience. Does any other job work like that?

What a moron.
Charlie Mas said…
There are a number of separate questions to be answered here and I see them all jumbled up all the time. It would be nice to see them separated out.

1) Would we recruit and retain better teachers if they were paid more?
I see this question asked from time to time, but it presumes that there is an army of would-be-great teachers who are choosing other professions based on pay. Teach for America believes in this. I think a lot more TfA volunteers would stay in teaching if they could make a better living at it. Just the same, I'm not aware of anything more than anectdotal evidence of this.

2) Would cash performance incentives inspire teachers to higher performance?
This has pretty much been disproven a number of times, most recently with this study from Vanderbilt.

3) Would cash incentives attract and retain strong teachers at challenging schools?
My reading on this indicates that cash will attract teachers to challenging schools, but only if it were A LOT of cash, more than school districts are typically willing to offer.

4) Would higher pay attract and retain stronger math, science, world language, and special education teachers?
This is essentially the first question asked in a narrower way. The reason that math and science teachers are hard to keep is that they have ample work opportunities in higher paying careers. Same for world language teachers. The story on Special Education teachers may be more about burn out than other job opportunities.

Here's the questions that I would like to ask:

5) Would we recruit and retain better teachers if they had better working conditions, more support, and more autonomy?

5) Would better working conditions, more support and more autonomy attract and retain strong teachers at challenging schools?

I'm not surprised that business interests see cash as the primary incentive, but I don't think that cash is a primary motivator for teachers and, therefore, it makes an ineffective and inefficient incentive. There are other incentives that, I believe, would be more effective. Namely working conditions - small class sizes, great leadership, and personal accomodations - more support - mentoring, assistant teachers, and, again, great leadership - and more autonomy - license to innovate, funding for innovation, and freedom to fail.

The teachers I have known would give a lot for these things, would do a lot for these things, and, would do a whole lot with these things. It would benefit students more than anyone else in the end.

For all of the talk about incenting teachers, there hasn't been much talk about what incents them.
Charlie Mas said…
Here's a question that people don't think enough about:

Why is it hard to attract and retain teachers at challenging schools?

The answer, I believe, is because the working conditions are so tough. If that's the case, then we could attract and retain teachers at challenging schools if we improved the working conditions in those schools, couldn't we? Wouldn't that be cheaper and more effective than paying the teachers more money to endure the poor conditions?
Bird said…
4) Would higher pay attract and retain stronger math, science, world language, and special education teachers?

I think, yes. Almost all of the women in my family in my parents' generation were teachers. I've had my aunts ask me before if I would ever go into teaching, and I have to say, it sounds worthwhile and interesting, but I currently make about 4 times as much as a veteran teacher.

The thought of teaching intrigues me, but that's quite a sacrifice to take it up. I can't say I see myself doing it.

I'm not saying I'd be a great teacher, (who knows?), but I do have strong background in math, science and technology, hence the high income, hence the low motivation to teach.

I'm sure I'm not the only one making that calculation.

Thanks to all the folks to take up teaching despite taking a pay cut!
ParentofThree said…
Why isn't anybody talking about the achievement gap that widens for low income students over the summer. Do a quick google and lots of research is available supporting this trend.

I also caught a bit of Oprah last night, with Gates and Rhee.

One thing I that caught my attention was the term, "Innovation schools." Did I read somewhere on this blog that Dr. Enfield was starting to call Alternative/Option schools, innovation schools?

Must look into that!
Charlie Mas said…
I don't want to hijack this thread, but yes, Dr. Enfield has taken up the term "innovation school". She used it several times at the last meeting of the Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee.

On the whole, I regard it as a positive. It gives her license to allow variations from the standardization imposed by the District. It makes a space for it in her rigid ideological model.

It also requires alternative schools to justify themselves and demonstrate effectiveness, but that shouldn't be a problem. It should be a positive for them. It can only be good for them to show their good results. I'm confident that they can show good results.
Sarah said…
As a nurse I've been happiest in an environment that enabled me to provide quality patient care. I've left jobs that did not provide a safe working environment- pay was never the issue. I suspect teachers are like nurses- want an environment to be effective.
seattle citizen said…
Perhaps higher pay in "challenging schools" is really just making up for the loss of a positive work environment, healthy work conditions, as class sizes grow across the board, including at challenging schools, and challenging schools are subjected to less autonomy.

Maybe it's cheaper to stuff classes full of students, cut other services (IAs, FSW, etc) not repair buildings...and give some of the teachers an extra five grand.

Let's see: 500 student school, 25 students per teacher = 20 teachers plus, say, five support staff.
Put 35 students in a class = 15 teachers, cut the five support staff:

Five teachers = 350,000
Five Support = 250,000

Saved a million, so use five thousand for each remaining teacher: 75,000, still saved 925,000.

Cutting services and then offering extra money to make up for the harsh conditions thus engendered saves a lot of money.
seattle citizen said…
oops, saved 600,000, not a million. but still!
Chris S. said…
I liked the comment at the Times saying that merit pay is intended as a distraction to keep teachers from seeking across-the-board fair pay.

And yes, if i'd lived a generation ago, I'd have been a teacher. That was the one benefit of cutting off the best and brightest females from other occupations. I don't necessarily work for money, but any idiot can see that teaching is HARD. My fantasy reality show: Bill Gates and Eli Broad trapped in a middle school...
Charlie Mas said…
I'd just like to see them ride the bus.

Want some gummy bears?
Eric M said…
Having worked at both "challenging" schools and somewhat less challenging schools, I'll say that working conditions at the "challenging" schools were much much tougher, and I was super pleased to get out. $10,000 extra a year wouldn't get me into Rainier Beach, thanks very much. And frankly, my karma feels pretty clean, having done my time in the trenches.

Like what?

1) Kids are just much further back, at the same age academically. A generalization, but true. They don't have books at home, they've got jobs after school, they're more likely not to even speak English, they have fractured families, they move a lot. Everything is harder academically. Absences are huge.

2) Kids and families are disenfranchised, so they don't often see education as positive. Just more oppression.

3) Because it's worse, it's worse. Teacher turnover is huge: we had 25 % new staff per year. We had new teachers work a week and quit. You realize there's not a critical mass of peer role models for students, not a critical mass of teacher experience to bootstrap yourself up.

4) Now, with teacher demonizing, if you teach in a "challenging" school, all the pathologies will end up being your responsibility and fault.

5) Since "challenging" really means "high poverty", there won't be adequate resources for anything. No PTSA, no big fundraising events, no jazz band. Show me a "challenging" school, and I'll show you a school full of kids systematically denied resources by a racist society.

The thing that REALLY pisses me off is when the ed-deformers close schools in tough areas because they're not showing good test scores. Of course they're not - some schools have to be at the bottom, if there's a top. Closing the best, most stable thing in some kids lives and shipping them to some other world is criminal.

Ed-deformers always like one set of educational solutions for THEIR kids, and another, more draconian, regimented educational solution for poor kids.
Syd said…
What motivates people?

Parent of Three, I did a whole thread on the summer achievement gap. It is major and important and more needs to be done.
seattle citizen said…
Eric, your comment really says it all. Generalizations, yes, but the cummulative impact of no books at home, language barriers, disenfranchisement, joblessness or job demands that are not your normal "9-5", absenteeeism for a variety of reasons, lack of resources, "worse because it's worse" turnover and burnout, the onus increasingly being placed on the educators in these "challenging" schools to somehow be "quality enough" to make up for all these deficits...

There are models of wrap-around support, community and school, which seem to alleviate some of these problems. Firing all the staff and bringing in "quality" Teach For America part-timers is certainly not the answer.

(It's the strangest thing: many in the "reform" crowd demean teachers by implying the MAIN issue is having a "quality" teacher in each class, yet many of these same reformers just love TFA. I don't get it at all. I guess it just points to the real rationale behind staffing reform: break the union, insert "quality" data-managing drones, feed them pedagogy and instruction designed by the reformers - eek! - and save a ton of money at the expense of a quality education.)
seattle said…
Thanks Eric. I really appreciate you sharing your experiences.

From your perspective, besides stability (IE and not closing "under performing" schools) what could be done to help those students? What, if anything would work?

Sounds like teachers that can, run from these schools. How would an "under performing" school attract good teachers?
ParentofThree said…
It just seems like we are having the wrong conversation in this country about education by focusing on teacher quality and merit pay based on testing.
ParentofThree said…
Oh and speaking of merit pay, how did MGJ fair on her incentive pay this year, been pretty quiet on that front.
seattle citizen said…
I can't speak for Eric, but in my opinion some of these things would attract teachers to "challenging schools":
Family support workers, no, TWO in each building; Lots of IAs, preferrably with lots of different langauges represented; small class sizes (smaller than in "non-challenging" schools); many counselors (academic and psychological); lots of healthy food and the time to eat it, AM and noon; after-school activities, after school tutoring (mandated when necessary); a variety of academic resources, high-end and low-end (provided in-class through differentiation, specialists, and IAs, and out of class where necessary through a variety of remedial and advanced offerings...)...And that's just IN the school.
Outside the school: revitalized community support systems of various kinds: health, social, psychological, nutritional...Scholarship funds that help provide choices to those who complete the K-12 sequence (hope and promise)

School/Community: School is open 6:00am to 11:00pm, with parent/guardians coming and going to get more education themselves; daycare on-site for students and/or families; theater, clinics, clubs...multi-generational. The building as community asset.

And a skateboard park on-site! (and spa service in the faculty lounge!)
seattle citizen said…
In my opinion, a fair proportion of "challenging" students come from families that do not find easy access to the greater society: There is a sort of tribalism at work, or even solitude, due to language barriers, economic instability, institutional racism and oppression that some see as insurmountable. The model I dreamed in the last comment is meant to include any and all in a community center of learning and access, thus (I could hope) involving people from all sorts of walks of life to come together for a common purpose: education (in all its variety)
Eric M said…
seattle citizen, sounds like you're proposing some kind of communistic pinko anti-poverty poverty-elimination scheme. Next thing, you'll be saying wars are bad and never solve anything. You're the kind of person who probably even would have ben against slavery back in the 1700's.

seattle citizen said…
Even the most capitalistic capitalized capitalist knows that you have to take care of the people. Otherwise they get antsy and start looking up.

There are a couple of ways to take care of the people: Turn them into uncritical, unthoughtful drones via drugs, media, or uncritical, unthoughtful education; or actually take care of them with heart and compassion, knowing that one's capital is dependent on innovation, enterprise and adventure on ALL levels, not just your buddies on the board.
TechyMom said…
I considered a teaching career, and a big reason I didn't end up doing it was that it didn't pay enough. In my 20's, it was very important to me that I be able to support myself without having to get married, and that I be able to afford to live in the city. I looked at both Master in Teaching programs and at TFA. I liked the TFA model better, because the MIT programs (UW, SU) both required that you not work while in school, and I did not want to take out loans. I also learn better with hands-on training, which TFA does. The SU program had a lot of that, but was very expensive. The UW program had much less. This was in 1993 or 1994, so it may have changed.

I wanted to teach math to gifted children. Instead, I work in the software industry. I like my job, and actually, I encounter a fair number of grown-up gifted children, but sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I'd gone down the other path.

There were two things that kept me out of teaching. One was money. The other was a lack of either job openings or MIT coursework around teaching gifted children.

But, $5K isn't going to change that. I make 2-3 times what a veteran teacher makes, as do most people with STEM skills. That is a very big sacrifice to ask.
hschinske said…
I make 2-3 times what a veteran teacher makes, as do most people with STEM skills.

Surely it depends on what you define as STEM skills? I know a lot of people in what I think of as STEM jobs who make under six figures, often well under.

Helen Schinske
Tim said…
I have to agree with Eric M -the school I am at now has enough challenges. I don't think I would teach at one that was declared "challenging" and offered incentives, even if the pay were double. I would need better conditions.
reader said…
Wow. TechyMom earns 2 or 3 times a veteran teacher's salary? You mean, mid 200K's? Good job TechyMom.

Veteran teachers make around $70,000, with an extra $6,000 or so thrown in for extra work. Let's call it $75,000. Then we've got another 10 to 15 grand in benefits, insurance, retirement. Not many jobs have defined benefits retirement anymore, you've gotta subtract that out yourself. So, we're up to mid 80's.... Then, of course, there's lots of breaks. Summer, winter, spring.. etc. The rest of us would have to take unpaid leave to get that.

And then there's "consulting teacher"... making well into the 100K's base, with all kinds of perks for "extra work"... none of which involves teaching, of course. Maybe TechyMom is actually making well into the $300K's. Even more excellent!

Nobody's saying that teachers don't earn it, or that there isn't a fairly long time (10 to 15 years) to make it to full and final pay grades... but, it isn't really all so terrible, especially considering it isn't going out of business. It isn't a business right?
TechyMom said…
Wasn't that high when I was considering it. I'm glad it's higher now. But $5k still wouldn't make a difference. And the starting salary was below $20k at the time. I recall that 1 year's tuition at SU was more than the first year's pay. Just didn't pencil out.

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