Research News

Citing academic gains, researchers encourage testing educator performance pay

New research from Vanderbilt University and the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that performance pay for teachers and administrators often has a positive impact on student achievement and should be explored by states and school districts. Their findings are the result of a review of six large current or planned performance-pay programs and the U.S. Department of Education’s $500 million Teacher Incentive Fund implemented under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“Performance pay is gaining steam across the country, but information about whether or not it works or not has been hard to find,” Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University, said. “Our review of existing programs offers support for the idea that performance incentives for teachers and administrators can have a positive impact on student achievement. We encourage states and school districts to develop pilot programs to test this theory themselves and determine if it benefits their students. We want to know what works, and what doesn’t, to help other schools test this idea.”

The study was a collaborative effort between Springer and Michael J. Podgursky, professor of economics at the University of Missouri’s College of Arts and Science. The researchers critiqued previously published studies that evaluated the effectiveness of school district- and state-sponsored merit pay systems throughout United States as well as programs in Israel, Africa and the United Kingdom. They found that, in most cases, student achievement improved when teachers received financial incentives.

As a result, school districts should at least consider the idea, Podgursky said, by experimenting with performance-based systems, which require flexibility and only become effective through “trial and error.” Podgursky and Springer’s position differs from those of opponents who argue that unlike sales by a salesman or billable hours for an attorney, teacher performance cannot be measured or monitored. Or, that incentives result in greater competition and less teamwork by teachers. “We can’t say, ‘Do this; or this is the right way to do it,'” he said. “However, the preponderance of evidence, when you look at a variety of sources, suggests that it really is something school districts should be exploring or piloting. Every one of the evaluations has been virtually positive. They all suggest there’s a positive response in terms of outcome measures – including test scores.” Traditionally, teacher pay is calculated on a salary schedule based on years of experience and education level.

Podgursky and Springer said the current salary system increases expenditures without directly impacting student achievement. In the study, the researchers encourage school districts to emulate private sector employers who “understand that strategic pay policies are a very important lever in raising firm performance.” “The system isn’t passive; the evidence certainly suggests when you offer incentives, you’re likely to get better results,” Podgursky said. “It suggests that the actors do respond to the incentives, and offers a more strategic way to allocate limited personnel funds.” The study, “Teacher Performance Pay: A Review,” will be published in the September issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Springer is research assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College for education and human development.

For more Vanderbilt news visit VUCast, Media contact: Melanie Moran, (615) 322-NEWS