Right on the MoneyBy Elaine McArdle
Despite repeated efforts to reward teachers based on performance — both theirs and their students’ — many experts say this incentive doesn’t improve education.
Offering financial incentives to improve education — providing money rewards to students, teachers, schools, or districts as a way to motivate them to try harder and do better — is one of the hottest topics in education today.
On the student side, schools in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., are experimenting with financial rewards, including cash payouts to students who make good grades or show other achievement. The new competitive incentive grants from the federal Department of Education — the so-called “Race to the Top” money — hand out financial remuneration to states that comply with certain requirements, including improving academic results.
But the greatest focus has been “pay for performance” initiatives for teachers whose students make the most academic progress, typically measured by results of standardized tests. The concept is simple: A series of influential studies in recent years have shown that teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student achievement, so “good” teachers — as reflected in growth in student test scores — should be paid more than their less able colleagues. Financial incentives will encourage teachers to try harder in their jobs, the theory goes, and those who don’t should leave the field and seek other careers. Pay for performance will rid schools of mediocre teachers, proponents say, leading to higher student achievement, betters schools, and, in the long-run, a more productive workforce in the United States.
In the ongoing effort to address the complicated issue of improving American education, pay for performance seems to make sense, and so the movement has caught on across the country. In the past decade, at least 20 states and a large number of districts have instituted some form of pay for performance for teachers, including California, Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and the cities of Cincinnati, Denver, New York, and Charlotte, N.C., according to Donald Gratz, Ed.M.’76, author of the new book, The Peril and Promise of Performance Pay. And President Obama has announced that the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, a competitive grant program to support pay for performance plans, will increase five-fold, from $97 million to $483 million.
But does pay for performance really work? According to many experts, the answer is a resounding no — especially when teacher ability is measured solely or primarily on student scores on standardized tests.
“There has never been any research that shows that this works, although it’s very fashionable to think that it should work,” says Richard Rothstein, the former education columnist at The New York Times and the author of a number of books on education, including Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right.
“When it comes to the sexy reform du jour — basing teachers’ pay on student performance — the research doesn’t support it at all,” concurs Bella Rosenberg, Ed.M.’72, an independent education consultant based in Washington, D.C., who worked for more than 20 years for the American Federation of Teachers. This year, Rosenberg did a project that required her to read “just about every piece of research available on this, including from the advocates,” she says. She found no evidence that pay for performance improves education. “It’s not there — it’s just not there,” she says.