NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Merit Pay Study: Teacher Bonuses Don't Raise Student Test Scores

September 27, 2010

Offering middle school math teachers bonuses up to $15,000 did not produce gains in student test scores, Vanderbilt University researchers reported Tuesday.

The report's authors, of the National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI) at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College of Education, stress that theirs is just one approach, says USA Today.  

  • Some 296 middle-school math teachers -- two-thirds of the district's middle school math teachers -- volunteered to participate in the experiment.
  • Half were placed randomly in a control group, while the rest were eligible for bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 if their pupils scored significantly higher than expected on the statewide exam known as the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program.
  • One third of the eligible teachers -- 51 of 152, or 34 percent -- got bonuses at least once; 18 teachers received bonuses all three years.
  • Except for some temporary gains for fifth graders, students with teachers in the treatment group progressed no faster than those in classes taught by teachers in the control group.

The study did not shake the faith of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in merit pay.

"While this is a good study, it only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder," said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for Duncan.  It did not address the Obama administration's push to "change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better."

Source: Christopher Connell, "Merit Pay Study: Teacher Bonuses Don't Raise Student Test Scores," USA Today, September 22, 2010.

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