• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Thursday 09th August, 2012

To bonus or not to bonus

Can performance-related incentives improve teaching? Policy-makers keen to find some way to improve student test scores and decrease academic gaps between poor and affluent children have seized on bonuses linked to student test scores as one potential tool. But results from a large, randomized controlled trial in Texas evaluating performance-related bonuses for teams of teachers suggests they may not work as hoped. These incentives failed to improve either the achievement of students or the attitudes and practices of teachers.The two-year study of more than 17,000 students examined how collective performance awards given to teams of middle school teachers affected student test scores in the four core subject areas of mathematics, reading, social studies, and science. The research also looked at whether the team-level awards affected teachers’ attitudes and teaching practices, and found no effects. Texas teaching teamsThe study, designed by the US’s National Center on Performance Incentives, was based in the Round Rock Independent School District, Texas. The trial included 665 teachers, divided among 159 interdisciplinary teams in nine schools. Each team taught core subjects to around 100-140 students in Grades 6 to 8 (around ages 12-14). In each of the two years of the study, teams of teachers were randomly assigned to the treatment condition to be eligible for the performance-related awards, or to the control condition that did not receive any bonuses. The teams in the treatment group received a bonus if their students’ achievement growth was among the top third in their grade level. The teachers in each awarded team received the bonus as long as their individual performance score was not statistically below average for their grade level. The size of the bonus was about $5,400 per teacher during the first year and about $5,900 during the second year. “No effects on the achievement of students or the attitudes and practices of teachers”The research found no effect on test scores in any subject area across the two years of the experiment. Perhaps more surprisingly, there was no evidence of an effect on the scores of even those students who were taught by teams eligible for the bonuses in both years.Further, the incentives had no effects on the teachers’ perceptions of team dynamics. Both the control and treatment group teachers reported similar levels of collegiality and quality of team dynamics. Comparing groups of teachers within the treatment group – those who went on to win the bonus compared those who did not – further suggests the bonuses had no effect on teacher behavior. Winning a bonus did not change teachers’ attitudes and practices. There were no differences with respect to changes in collaboration, professional development, parent engagement, instructional practices, and perceptions of the intervention for teachers who won a bonus compared to teachers who did not. Why didn’t the bonuses work? Why did the bonuses not work? The teachers’ attitudes to the performance-related incentive provide us with some clues. Despite worries that bonuses might create resentment among teachers, less than a quarter of teachers believed the intervention had negative effects on their school. However, teachers were skeptical about other aspects of the intervention.A majority of the teachers in the study reported that the potential to win a bonus did not cause them to change their teaching behavior. Almost all were skeptical about the ability of the intervention to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers: only 12% of control teachers and 9% of treatment teachers said that the bonuses rewarded particularly effective teaching. These factors may mean that the teachers did not buy into the bonus system. The authors themselves believe that the short time of the initiative – two one-year assignments – may have been too short for teachers to change their behavior. And it was no help that just over half of the teachers did not understand the criteria for earning a bonus. Another possibility is that financial incentives are less useful than other tools, such as curriculum-focused training and professional development, in changing teaching practice. Perhaps what the study demonstrates is that teaching is not a simple chore that can be improved if only teachers put more effort into it. As the authors acknowledge, “there was no professional development specifically connected to these programs.” It may be that bonuses can reward performance but not improve it. **********References:Springer, M.G., Pane, J.F., Le, V-N., McCaffrey, D.F., Burns, S.F., Hamilton, L.S., & Stecher, B. (2012). Team Pay for Performance: Experimental Evidence From the Round Rock Pilot Project on Team Incentives. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. DOI: 10.3102/ External Links:Large Stakes and Big Mistakes (on performance‐contingent payments with complex and simple tasks)

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