the merit of merit pay

Big new study finds that performance bonuses for teachers boost test scores (a bit)

PHOTO: Megan Witucki
Megan Witucki, a teacher at Compass Montessori School in Wheat Ridge, works with students.

A school district leader with money for teacher bonuses faces a choice: Should she spread the money around to all teachers equally or give more to teachers who have performed best?

A new study, released by the federal government, suggests that merit-based bonuses are the way to go, as they help raise student test scores without making a significant dent in teacher morale. It offers the latest evidence that programs of this sort can help schools and students, despite the common perception that they are ineffective.

The research focuses on a federal program known as the Teacher Incentive Fund, and compares schools that gave all teachers an automatic 1 percent bonus to those schools that gave bonuses based on classroom observations and student test scores. About 130 schools across 10 districts were randomly assigned to one of the groups.

The result? The schools that gave performance bonuses boosted student test scores throughout the four years of the study, between 2011 and 2015.

The differences between the two groups of schools weren’t big, and they were only sometimes statistically significant. For instance, in year three of the study, performance pay increased student test score performance by 2 percentile points.

A graph showing the share of teachers getting different size bonuses in districts that implemented performance pay.

But because the program was relatively cheap to implement, performance bonuses were very cost effective. They offered a better bang for the buck than class-size reductions, the researchers estimated.

And what about fears that performance pay would dampen teacher morale or reduce collaboration as teachers competed with each other for a fixed pool of bonus money? There was little evidence of that. According to teacher surveys, the program had only a limited impact on their job satisfaction, interactions with colleagues, or school morale. In the initial year of performance pay, there seemed to be small dips in morale and collaboration, but in year three the effects were actually positive.

The program also led to small increases in teacher retention, which may help explain the positive findings.

The study comes with an important caveat: It relies on test scores alone as a measure of learning. If the incentives pushed teachers to raise scores by less desirable means, like cheating or “teaching to the test,” that wouldn’t say much about the success of the policy.

The research adds to the hotly contested debate about how teachers should be paid. High-profile research in New York City and Tennessee from several years ago found disappointing results for merit pay, solidifying a conventional wisdom that the approach doesn’t work for teachers. Other districts, like Denver, have struggled with the design of a performance pay program and have seen inconsistent results.

But some recent studies have re-opened this debate. An overview of research last year showed that performance pay leads to small boosts in test scores, and a number of studies have found that added pay can help keep more effective teachers in the classroom.

It’s not entirely clear why the studies have reached such different conclusions. But performance-pay programs that judge teachers by test scores alone and only measure short-term effects tend to be disappointing. Programs like the Teacher Incentive Fund and those in Minnesota and Washington, DC, which use performance pay as part of a broader system for evaluating teachers, often produce more positive results.

That doesn’t mean that districts will heed the latest research. In fact, even in the new federal study — which found benefits for students — less than half the districts said they planned to continue offering performance bonuses after the Department of Education grant ran out.

Momentum

Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.