Saturday, July 28, 2012

10 Telling Teacher Experiments In The Merit Pay Debate

2012′s election cycle means, no matter what, the two most prominent candidates are likely to start pushing merit-based pay for American educators. Provided they don’t alter their platforms based on polling data and special interest support, anyways. But research on such a structure, which — at its simplest — sees raises and bonuses doled out based on how well students perform, unearths mixed results. It works in some places, doesn’t in others, and teacher’s unions find it a deplorable practice. Sometimes. Informed voters should know exactly what the system entails, and what sort of studies and experiments exist showcasing the various outcomes. The following are a nice place to get started.

Vanderbilt University:

In conjunction with the RAND Corporation, a Vanderbilt University study published in 2010 revealed that performance-based teacher bonuses held very little sway over ultimate student achievement. Over the span of five years, it explored the public school system in Nashville, Tenn., to note the efficacy of merit pay, specifically within the Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) initiative. Small mathematical improvements happened in fifth graders between the second and third year, but they quickly dissipated once they moved up to sixth.


Teacher’s unions form the biggest roadblock to instilling merit pay, so the fact that they actually back attempts in Toledo, Ohio, renders the experiment rather significant on a national level. Seeing as how the city announced its plans to try it out back in May 2012, the results obviously have yet to fully materialize. But the rare cooperation of the teacher’s union means educators and policymakers should pay close attention to how well things work out when everyone communicates instead of initiating without input.


As far back as 1974, researchers were already experimenting with the efficacy of merit pay-based structures. Naftaly S. Glasman’s “Merit Pay: A case study in a California school district” — published in Instructional Science — delved into the possible issues associated with the concept before it had much of a chance to gel. Issues of “practicality,” mostly, and data proved so difficult to compile, the methodology needed extra tweaking as research marched forward.

Harvard University:

2011 saw Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance publish an international study on teacher merit pay fronted by University of Munich’s Ludger Woessmann. He noted that, in general, students’ math and reading scores increased in nations where educators’ salaries were commiserate with their performance. But with so many variables between legalities and culture, most experts believe this particular study cannot be cited as irrefutable proof that merit-based bonuses and pay scales will necessarily work across the board.


Florida’s Hillsborough County noted that their merit-based bonuses and salaries came packaged with the same issues as No Child Left Behind. Namely, that it tends to filter more money into schools already bursting with funding and resources, leaving underperformers in need without access to everything required to bring students up to speed. This created even more of an achievement gap than before, and considerable reworking of the system was necessary to scale it back and ensure more opportunities for underprivileged kids.

Washington, DC:

Impact Plus in Washington, D.C., sports a system where educators receive raises and bonuses based on reviews, and so far it seems to stand as one of the more viable applications in America today. The catch, though, is that teachers must agree to give up some of their union benefits in order to qualify, but the ones who have and received raises and rewards as a result have largely reported satisfaction with the decision. Once again, though, the system’s critics focus on how it tends to further marginalizes teachers (and students!) in low-income, resource-deprived neighborhoods — and for good reason!

World Bank:

A World Bank study published in 2009 concerned itself with understanding how (not to mention how well) performance pay impacted the education system in India. Conducted over the span of two years and focusing on Andhra Pradesh primary schools, it noted a correlation between student achievement in math and language and teacher compensation. They not only scored better, but displayed a greater ability to process both “mechanical” and “conceptual” challenges.


Thomas S. Dee and Benjamin J. Keys’ 2004 inquiry published in Journal of Policy Analysis and Management turned up mixed results when it dissected Tennessee’s Project STAR and Career Ladder Evaluation System initiatives. Classrooms with teachers whose salaries and bonuses hinged on merit experienced a 3% skill increase in mathematics, but negligible improvements, if any, in language and reading. So the concept certainly holds potential in some ways. Crafting sustainable, equitable solutions around it provides the much more daunting policy challenge.


Research group Mathematica noted sadly that Chicago public schools’ exhibited no increase in student performance despite three years of merit-based pay for their teachers. It discovered that many of the participating institutions experienced a decline in scores rather than the proposed upswing. In fact, one school wound up closing because its performance plummeted so egregiously, and plenty more decided to just abandon the structure altogether.


A detailed study by Victor Levy sought to understand why two teacher merit programs in Israel succeeded while its American counterparts largely failed. And, in doing so, he eventually drew up some viable strategies for applying them to schools in the United States and reaping the intended rewards. One of the more standout findings warned against implementing such policies too quickly, as the most effective merit-based pay scales favored a slow and steady pace adaptable to incoming challenges.

Contacts and sources:
Kaitlyn Cole

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