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More Details on the Teacher Incentive Fund Evaluation

My colleague Stephen Sawchuk yesterday highlighted the news about that $7.9 million grant from the federal government to evaluate the Teacher Incentive Fund. Allow me today to offer up a few more details about it.

Awarded by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences, the grant went to both Mathematica Policy Research and the National Center on Performance Incentives, which is based at Vanderbilt University. The center has already been evaluating some state-level and district efforts across the country to experiment with merit-pay plans for teachers—the most interesting of which is a randomized study of a performance-pay plan involving 70 percent of Nashville's public school teachers. It's the first such experimental study, in fact, in the United States, according to the Vanderbilt study team.

The new project, however, promises to kick things up a notch, as Emeril Lagasse would say. (We've been snowbound here and watching too much Food Network.)

First, investigators will be looking across a number of sites, according to Matthew G. Springer, the center director. The hope is to convince school officials in some of those sites to stagger or delay implementing new pay programs so that researchers can do a randomized evaluation.

Springer also says in an e-mail that researchers want to explore the relative effectiveness of different forms of performance pay. Would an incentive program for individual teachers, for instance, yield better results than one that rewards an entire school or a team of teachers? The study also would examine a number of different outcomes, besides student-achievement gains or losses.

The Teacher Incentive Fund was created in 2006 to support performance-based teacher and principal compensation systems in high-need schools and the new evaluation is taking shape as funding for the 3-year-old grant program undergoes a dramatic expansion. Funded at $97 million in the 2009 fiscal year, the program is set to get $400 million in new and continuing grants in fiscal 2010. The study will get underway in July, just as the next round of grants goes out the door.

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