How do schools improve student test scores?

Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 11:45pm

As a simple carrot-in-front-of-a-horse model, bonus pay for teachers doesn’t translate to better grades for students.

That’s according to the Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) experiment that two weeks ago made a splash in the education debate about what role bonus pay for teachers played as an incentive to boost student performance in the classroom (as measured by Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test scores).

Based on the results of the controlled, three-year experiment, it appears incentive pay doesn’t really do much, at least not when it’s the only incentive. While the POINT study focuses on only one incentive model, some say the study is an important empirical finding on which to build.

Like many other school districts across the country, Metro Nashville Public Schools finds itself ready to improve, but to do so, it must benefit from some particularly creative thinking. Those who conducted the experiment say it shows teachers’ openness to a performance pay incentive. But with more work to be done to find effective models of influencing teacher performance and student achievement in the classroom, school districts will likely include performance pay incentives in tandem with other models, officials say.

The experiment — by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College — took a total of five years to complete, with the planning process starting in 2005. Conducted during the 2007 to 2009 school years, the study invited all public middle school math teachers to participate. About 70 percent, or 296 teachers, volunteered for the study.

POINT focused solely on the bonus-pay incentive model rather than including other types of incentive systems, such as professional development or instructional guidance, or a combination of all of the above. Teachers could earn $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 based on gains in their students’ TCAP scores. But that financial opportunity “had no significant impact on student achievement on average,” said Matthew Springer, director of the National Center on Performance Incentives.

The result found the math teachers were generally supportive of the idea of an incentive pay program but didn’t self-report any major difference in terms of “how they approached instruction, contact with parents, their pursuit of professional development and so forth,” Springer said.

“It confirmed what I believe,” said Erick Huth, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association teachers union. “Teachers are not motivated by monetary awards to increase test scores.”

But, Springer said, there are many ways to design an incentive pay system, just as there are many ways to measure its output aside from simple test scores — student attendance or performance on other assessments, for instance. There are also other options to boost teacher performance in the classroom, which doesn’t necessarily mean making teachers work harder overall, but rather altering or augmenting their classroom management skills and approach to teaching.

“It doesn’t do any good for teachers to work harder doing the same things they’ve always done,” said June Keel, assistant superintendent for human resources at Metro Nashville Public Schools. “It’s getting them to work harder at doing things differently that will improve student performance.”

Higher salaries needed

In Metro, education officials are looking at options to combine incentive pay with programs such as mentoring, building teachers’ professional development and strengthening relationships among principals, teachers and students.

“I believe that teachers are most effective and are motivated by being in a working environment that is collaborative in nature and has an instructional leader,” Huth said, “in the form of a principal who is supportive of the instructional program, understands the curriculum and helps support teachers with student discipline issues as they arise.”

Huth said in terms of pay, it comes down to providing a higher base salary instead of offering a “bonus pay of the week” incentive model.

In a written statement, Mayor Karl Dean said the POINT study shows compensation alone doesn’t increase teacher effectiveness: “An ineffective teacher will remain ineffective if all that is being offered is additional pay.”

Dean said Metro’s Achieving Student Success through Effective Teaching initiative aims for the heart of teacher effectiveness.

“Though we believe in increased pay for our teachers, particularly for those who show effectiveness in the classroom, we know with certainty that compensation is only one component,” he said. “Teachers must also be given professional supports, high quality instructional guidance, retention and professional development opportunities, and career pathways that promote their strengths.”

According to Keel, last year Metro implemented an instructional coaching program meant to provide teachers support and mentoring from fellow teachers, as well as instructional coaches in literacy and numeracy.

A local public schools program called the Career Development Institute looks to train those tenured teachers (with at least three years on the job) to make them leaders in the school — instructional coaches, department chairs, mentors — to keep the talented professional teachers inside the classroom where they can help students, Keel said.

Instead of micromanaging teachers’ work with children, Keel said the district will aim at the “entire package,” putting a greater focus on classroom management “by working with our teachers to help them better control their classroom to make that time on task more meaningful, and possibly linking performance pay with it at some point.”

New approaches

Gone are the “large instructional development speeches” where 500 to 1,000 teachers are rounded up into a room to have someone “talk at them for an hour about how to improve instruction,” Keel said.

Some of Metro’s Race to the Top funds will be used for the Career Development Institute and for leadership training to help principals identify and support effective teaching, and to improve overall communication in schools.

State Department of Education officials echo the idea of using incentive pay combined with professional development. Two weeks ago, the department announced it was awarded a $36 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant “to improve student achievement by increasing teacher and principal effectiveness.” The first year of the grant is meant to be a planning year in which education stakeholders in different districts of the state will be charged with designing reform plans to look at what it takes to measure teacher and school performance.

Later, districts will determine what types of incentives work best for them.

Debora E. Owens, executive director of federal programs for the education department, said besides just issuing incentive pay to teachers, as in the POINT study, districts could choose to give a group of teachers (such as those within a certain subject) or a school incentive pay as well.

But the problem with federal grant money, Huth said, is it dries up. He said he puts a greater emphasis on retaining better teachers — something Keel said Metro is looking into — along with knowledge- and skill-based incentives such as teachers obtaining National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification.

As for the POINT experiment, Springer said it offers key information as education reform across the country moves forward. While teachers weren’t opposed to an incentive pay system, the solution to better student performance isn’t as simple “as connecting a large financial incentive and a value-added measure of teacher effectiveness.”

“If we want to improve the school system and provide the best educational opportunity, rethinking compensation is likely to be a part of the puzzle,” Springer said.

4 Comments on this post:

By: richgoose on 10/4/10 at 5:36

The easiest way to improve test scores of Davidson County public school students is to get smarter and more motivated students. Another way is to let the students at Hume Fogg and MLK take thes tests on behalf of the rest of the students.

By: me55 on 10/4/10 at 6:41

Bonuses may help a teacher's willingness to try a little harder, but that is not the answer.
For better test scores, improvements MUST start in the home. When there is a lack of respect, discipline, and motivation, all the money in the world will not work.
We have children having children with little knowledge of parenting skills. Have many homes have newspapers? Magazines? Books?
How many families sit down for an evening meal and carry on meaningful discussions?
No, money is not the solution.
I taught for 36 years-my happiest were the first 10, when I had discipline in the classroom and COMPLETE parental support.
Those days are gone, and until they return, test scores will continue to decline.

By: kenstegall on 10/4/10 at 7:07

Teachers are more effective when they have smaller classroom size (# of students). Legal limits for class size are up to 35 students. Closer to half that many students would make a more reasonable number to teach with differentiated lessons, provide feedback, and classroom management. Teachers are also more effective when there is real effective planning for lessons, which takes real time devoted to lesson planning and preparation. Reducing class size and improving and increasing planning time are two key variables to improving instruction. Achievement grouping, (tracking) is not politically correct, but it is another instructional variable that matters. High achievers are typically highly compliant and easy to manage in larger groups instructionally. Their class sizes can be larger (35 & up). (I recall a college classroom (auditorium) of over 400 students.) Likewise low achievers often have lower compliance or special needs that require more instructional energy and a lower student teacher ratio. As long as it is politically correct to beat the teachers up and divert attention from the fact that the real variables are not being changed...we'll keep doing it the same old way and expecting something different.

By: codenamecia on 10/4/10 at 9:50

Incentive pay has its limits. Look at the MLK and Hume-Fogg students, students and their homes make the difference. It isn't just smart kids. but motivated and disciplined students. I worked with Metro Schools for 25 years and the teachers and administrators are at least at fault. They need softer hearts and more understanding. When students feel important to their teachers and admin staff, they perform better.