Team incentives alone do not boost student performance

Matthew Springer
Matthew Springer

In recent years, policymakers concerned with how to compensate teachers have increasingly sought to tie teacher pay to student outcomes. Market-minded education reformers have also begun to experiment by offering incentives to teachers who demonstrably add value to students’ education. But how effective are such programs? Does altering traditional compensation practices actually improve teaching and learning?

“The absence of appropriate incentives is a significant problem in American education,” says Matthew Springer, assistant professor of public policy and education and director of the federally funded National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI).

In one of the first studies of its kind, Springer and a multi-disciplinary NCPI group conducted an experiment in which teams of middle-school teachers were awarded bonuses based on their collective contributions to gains in student test scores. Carried out with the Round Rock Independent School District (RRISD) in Round Rock, Texas, the two-year study investigated how team-level awards affected student achievement in mathematics, reading, writing, social studies and science. It also analyzed the effect of team-level awards on teacher behavior and institutional and organizational dynamics. The results were published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis as “Team Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence from the Round Rock Pilot Project on Team Incentives.”

The study involved a randomized controlled trial to examine effects of the bonus program over the course of an academic year, with the experiment repeated a second year. Over the two years, the study included 665 teachers on 159 teams teaching core subjects of language arts and reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. Non-core teachers or paraprofessionals assigned to a team could participate if they provided team-wide student support. Principals also received a modest honorarium for participating in study-related activities and expediting research team access to necessary data. Team performance was based on a value-added measure of student progress on standardized achievement tests and district benchmark assessments. Students were tested in reading and language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

The project addressed several questions:

  • Does the bonus opportunity affect the achievement of students taught by the team?
  • Does the bonus opportunity affect teachers’ attitudes about compensation and teaching or their teaching practices?
  • Are there differences in the attitudes or practices of teachers who earned a bonus and teachers who did not?

Researchers observed no significant effects in the achievement of students taught by treatment and control group teams or in the attitudes and practices of the treatment and control group teachers. This was true across all subjects and for both years of the study.

These findings are consistent with other recent experiments studying the short-term effects of bonus awards for individual or whole-school performance, including the Vanderbilt-led NCPI Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT). The 2010 POINT report showed that bonus pay alone did not improve student outcomes.

Teacher practices and perceptions, including perceptions of team dynamics, were also largely unaffected by the intervention, with both treatment and control group teachers reporting similar answers across a range of variables.

Springer and his colleagues speculate as to the reasons for the lack of differences between the two groups, including that the experiment lasted only two years, that some treatment teachers did not clearly understand the intervention, that the possibility of winning a bonus did not induce most to change their practice, and that a substantial minority of teachers had misgivings about the intervention.

Although the Round Rock study furthered understanding of how group-based compensation plans affect teachers, Springer and his team feel more research into the value of teacher incentives is needed.