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Are You Eligible for Merit Pay? Many Teachers Don't Know

 Basing teachers' pay on merit might give a small boost to students' reading achievement—if teachers understand how it works.

But in districts using federal Teacher Incentive Fund grants to overhaul their teacher-compensation systems, many teachers didn't understand how it works, what's required, or even whether they were eligible.

That's according to the second report in an ongoing evaluation of the TIF program by Mathematica, for the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. [Correction: An earlier version of this story listed the study as produced by the wrong center within the Institute of Education Sciences.] The U.S. Education Department has awarded some $1.8 billion to districts to develop new measures of teacher effectiveness; establish bonuses based on them; provide opportunities for teachers to take on new roles and responsibilities for additional pay; and develop training to help teachers improve. The 13 districts chosen for Mathematica's in-depth evaluation provided significantly larger and more varied bonuses than other districts, and had more fully implemented the new systems.

The researchers found that, while more teachers understood the evaluation system in the second year, 38 percent of eligible teachers still did not know they qualified. Moreover, they consistently underestimated how much they could make through the bonuses:

teacherpay.JPGBy contrast, more than 90 percent of principals in the study knew that they could get a bonus for the performance of their schools. Moreover, the researchers found that teacher bonuses got slightly smaller, and principal bonuses grew, in the first two years.

Who Gets a Bonus?

By the second year, nearly all of the schools in the evaluated districts were offering performance bonuses to teachers and principals, with a large majority of those based on both student growth and classroom observations. However, nearly all of the districts provided bonuses based on the performance of all students in a school, while only 64 percent provided individual bonuses to teachers based on the academic growth of students they taught.

Top-performing teachers were likely to be rated highly in both student growth and classroom observations, but the Mathematica researchers found nearly 9 of 10 teachers and 8 of 10 principals whose students showed very little growth had still been rated above average in classroom observations. It's not clear whether that points to more nuanced or less rigorous classroom observers.

Students in the participating TIF schools saw a slight bump in reading achievement—a couple of percentile points, or about three weeks of progress in a 36-week term. There was no significant gain for math.

This is not the final report on the TIF grants, but it raises some interesting questions. For $1.8 billion, boosting students' achievement by a couple of percentage points seems a small return. And while research on the benefits of performance pay is mixed, at a minimum such incentive plans requires the professionals involved to understand what's available and how to get it. If explaining a complex new system is an afterthought, districts may get less than they bargained for.


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Chart: Teachers in districts implementing federal merit-pay grants consistently underestimated how much they could make from performance bonuses. Source: NCES

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