TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

A new look at performance pay

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A new study suggests that offering performance bonuses to a smaller segment of high performing teachers than is typical in schools using performance pay may be a smart move.

Ten school districts which were already participating in the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF), a federal program to support performance pay for teachers and principals in high-need schools, were asked to participate in a random assignment study where some districts awarded teachers performance pay bonuses while others awarded all teachers a one percent bonus regardless of their performance. The purpose of the study was to measure the impact of performance pay bonuses on educator effectiveness and student achievement over the course of four school years (2011 through 2015).

The results were impressive and provide counter evidence to NCTQ's prevailing theory behind performance pay. We have always maintained that the value behind performance pay is not to make teachers work harder but to attract greater talent to the profession and retain talent longer. Yet within these ten districts, student achievement did go up where bonuses were available, equivalent to about three or four weeks of learning. That's not insignificant.

As it turns out the experiment had some flaws that may have depressed the results, however positive. Only 58 percent of the teachers eligible for performance pay bonuses were aware that they were eligible. Even those teachers who knew about the bonuses underestimated how much they could potentially earn, estimating that they were likely to receive a bonus that was a fraction of what they did receive (about 40 percent of the award).

We've seen similar problems with communications in other districts. The American Institutes for Research found that in Newark, 37 percent of teachers believed they were paid on the new performance-based salary schedule while district records indicated that 66 percent of teachers were in fact paid on the new schedule. Even more, 19 percent of teachers indicated that they did not know if they were paid on the new, performance-base schedule or not.

Taken together, these studies suggest that districts must give higher priority to communicating to teachers about how new pay systems work. But we also must pay attention to the positive impact that this program had on student outcomes and explore ways to use performance pay to improve teacher quality.