Fighting for Equity in Education

The struggle is long but hope is longer

Teacher Performance Pay is Another Stunning Joel Klein Failure

Monday March 14, 2011

Julia Gillard’s hero, former New York City Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein left a legacy of failed school reforms. His school reporting scheme, which Gillard drew on as a model for My School, was claimed to be a huge success in improving student results. However, it was revealed last year that the improvements were a sham, being driven by lower pass standards.

Now it has been revealed that his $75 million teacher performance pay scheme which he described as “transcendent” when introduced in 2007 was also a stunning failure.

A new study published last week by Harvard University economist, Roland Fryer, found that it failed to increase student achievement. Fryer says in the abstract to the paper:

I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behaviour. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.

The study concludes:

Providing incentives to teachers based on school’s performance on metrics involving student achievement, improvement, and the learning environment did not increase student achievement in any statistically meaningful way. If anything, student achievement declined. [p.5]

The program also had no impact on whether teachers stayed at their schools or in the city school district and how teachers described their job satisfaction and school quality. The program had only a “negligible” effect on a list of other measures that includes student attendance, behavioural problems, Regents exam scores, and high school graduation rates.

The scheme targeted 200 high-need schools and 20,000 teachers from 2007-08 to 2009-10. The program handed out bonuses based on the schools’ results on the city’s progress report cards. The report cards grade schools primarily on how much progress they make in improving students’ state test scores. Teachers received a maximum incentive payment of $3,000 if the school completely met its target or $1,500 per teacher if the school improved its report card score by 75%.

The Harvard study compared the 200 schools to a control group of similar schools whose teachers did not get bonuses.

The incentive scheme was quietly abandoned last year, despite New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s earlier promise to expand the program.

The study adds to a research literature on teacher incentive pay that is decidedly at odds with the clamour to take up these schemes. Fryer, himself a strong early advocate of experimenting with financial incentives to improve student achievement, calls the literature “ambivalent.”

While programs in developing countries such as India and Kenya have had positive effects, few teacher incentive pay efforts in the United States have been deemed effective. Programs implemented in recent years in Iowa, Tennessee and Texas and in the Chicago and Denver school districts have all been evaluated recently and found not to have increased student results. Schools and teachers participating in these programs did not achieve any higher results than comparable schools or teachers not participating in the programs.

The results of these studies are a major challenge to the Gillard Government’s plan to pay cash bonuses of up to $8,000 to about 25,000 of Australia’s the best teachers, starting in 2014. They suggest that the $1.25 billion program is likely to be a complete waste of money.

Given the pledge by the Assistant Treasurer, Bill Shorten, that the Gillard Government would rely heavily on evidence-based policy, the Government would be best advised to follow the New York City’s mayor approach and quietly ditch the proposal.

Trevor Cobbold

Roland G. Fryer, Teacher Incentives and Student Achievement: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, Working Paper No. 16850, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, Mass, March 2011.

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