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Texas Merit-Pay Pilot Failed to Boost Student Scores, Study Says

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Back in August, I told you about some early results from a study of a performance-pay program that was being tested in the Lone Star State.

Piloted between the 2005-06 and the 2008-09 school years, the now-defunct Governor's Educator Excellence Grants, or GEEG, program distributed more than $10 million a year in federal grants to 99 Texas schools that managed to turn in high scores on state tests despite enrolling large numbers of students from low-income families. The program differed from some other merit-pay schemes, though, because it required schools to involve teachers in designing the performance-incentive plans for their own schools.

In the earlier study, which was conducted by researchers from the National Center on Performance Incentives, at Vanderbilt University, we learned that, when given a say, teachers tend to be remarkably egalitarian. They favor relatively modest awards and spread them widely.

In the new study, released just this month by the same group of researchers, we learn whether the pay incentives for teachers translated to any improvements in their students' test scores. The answer, in a word, is no. The third-year findings indicate that, overall, the program had a "weakly positive, negative, or negligible effect on student test-score gains."

The relative size of the bonuses did not seem to matter much, either. In this case, the range was somewhat limited because most of the plans called for individual bonuses that were less than the $3,000 minimum recommended by the state. "Perhaps because the incentive structures were so weak," write authors Lori L. Taylor and Matthew G. Springer, "we find no evidence that variations in plan design led to variations in student performance gains."

The experiment wasn't a complete bust, though. The study did turn up evidence that the incentives had an impact on teacher turnover. Teachers who received no bonuses were more likely to leave their schools, while teachers who got an award were more likely to stay. The report concludes:

"If we assume that award recipients were more effective in the classroom than non-recipients—which might be a relatively strong assumption—then the evidence suggests that even weak incentives achieved the objectives of employers."

The less-than-stellar results don't mean that merit-pay programs will disappear from Texas schools anytime soon. According to the Associated Press, the state legislature, at Gov. Rick Perry's urging, has rolled several of the state's performance-incentive programs into one. The newly consolidated District Awards for Teacher Excellence, or DATE, is being funded to the tune of $200 million a year.

1 Comment

Merit pay is, in principle, a good idea. Like any policy, though, the devil is in the details. Here we have a fundamental issue that goes well beyond the presumed "egalitarian" preference of teachers. Texas policymakers preferred to award only educators who could be directly linked to student achievement gains (i.e. grades 4 through ?? in reading and mathematics). Schools tended to broaden the awards to others. Good for them. The great irony of the "test is best" reward is that early grades are the most critical for future student success--yet the least rewarded. Second, subjects outside of mathematics and ELA are critical reinforcements to the goals within mathematics and ELA assessments. Until they are partners, we will limit the impact of performance pay. The question is how to make the appropriate links. Would like to see more reports on inclusive versus exclusive schools.

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