Merit pay? Not so fast!

A new study released by Education Next will cool some jets among proponents of performance-based pay for teachers.? The report, by Sarena Goodman and Lesley Turner, PhD candidates in Columbia University's Department of Economics, analyses New York City's pioneering School-Wide Performance Bonus Program, launched in 2007, and finds ?very little effect overall, positive or negative.??

The program, which was the subject of intense negotiations between the city's Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers, was initiated in 181 randomly selected, disadvantaged elementary schools (chosen from a group of 309 high-need schools) and was distinguished by the collaborative nature of its bonus system: the money was given to schools, based on school-wide student performance,?and then distributed to teachers by a school committee made up of two administrators and two UFT representatives.? If a school achieved pre-set academic goals, it received a bonus that amounted to $3,000 per teacher, about 7 percent of a starting teacher's salary and 3 percent of a veteran's annual salary. ?Not bad.

It just didn't?do much for the?kids.

The researchers cite a number of complicating factors in trying to analyze the Bonus Program ? including the fact that NYC was implementing other accountability measures at the time and that most of its schools improved. However, the researchers, did find a ?modest?but meaningful? impact of the program in smaller schools with fewer teachers.? They hypothesize,?

[T]his particular type of merit pay program, where bonuses are based on school-wide performance and teachers expect to receive bonus payments regardless of their effort, does not work in all schools. Group bonuses may weaken the incentives for individual teachers to increase effort devoted to raising student achievement....

This effect is minimized, the researchers conclude, in smaller schools, where individual effort would have more impact on the school's overall score:?

[A] very good teacher with a large number of teaching colleagues can do less to raise school-wide student performance than a teacher of the same quality in a school with fewer teachers.

Goodman and Turner conclude that ?we are a long way from amassing a convincing body of research on either side of the debate,? but it should send a message to merit pay proponents that the devil is in the details and to teacher unions that there are limits to the collaborative model.?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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