Offering big bonuses to teachers failed to raise students’ test scores in a three-year study released Tuesday that calls into question the Obama administration’s push for merit pay to improve education.The study, conducted in the metropolitan Nashville school system by Vanderbilt University’s National Center on Performance Incentives, was described by the researchers as the nation’s first scientifically rigorous look at merit pay for teachers.
It found that students whose teachers were offered bonuses of up to $15,000 a year for improved test scores registered the same gains on standardized exams as those whose teachers were given no such incentives.
The report is available here (PDF) from Vanderbilt’s National Center on Performance Incentives. The report’s executive summary reads, in part:
The Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) was a three-year study conducted in the Metropolitan Nashville School System from 2006-07 through 2008-09, in which middle school mathematics teachers voluntarily participated in a controlled experiment to assess the effect of financial rewards for teachers whose students showed unusually large gains on standardized tests. The experiment was intended to test the notion that rewarding teachers for improved scores would cause scores to rise. It was up to participating teachers to decide what, if anything, they needed to do to raise student performance: participate in more professional development, seek coaching, collaborate with other teachers, or simply reflect on their practices. Thus, POINT was focused on the notion that a significant problem in American education is the absence of appropriate incentives, and that correcting the incentive structure would, in and of itself, constitute an effective intervention that improved student outcomes.
By and large, results did not confirm this hypothesis. While the general trend in middle school mathematics performance was upward over the period of the project, students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teachers were assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses). The brightest spot was a positive effect of incentives detected in fifth grade during the second and third years of the experiment. This finding, which is robust to a variety of alternative estimation methods, is nonetheless of limited policy significance, for as yet this effect does not appear to persist after students leave fifth grade. Students whose fifth grade teacher was in the treatment group performed no better by the end of sixth grade than did sixth graders whose teacher the year before was in the control group.