roland fryer returns

Study: $75M teacher pay initiative did not improve achievement

New York City’s heralded $75 million experiment in teacher incentive pay — deemed “transcendent” when it was announced in 2007 — did not increase student achievement at all, a new study by the Harvard economist Roland Fryer concludes.

“If anything,” Fryer writes of schools that participated in the program, “student achievement declined.” Fryer and his team used state math and English test scores as the main indicator of academic achievement.

Schools could distribute the bonus money based on individual teachers' results, but most did not. Most teachers received the average bonus of $3,000.

The program, which was first funded by private foundations and then by taxpayer dollars, also had no impact on teacher behaviors that researchers measured. These included whether teachers stayed at their schools or in the city school district and how teachers described their job satisfaction and school quality in a survey.

The program had only a “negligible” effect on a list of other measures that includes student attendance, behavioral problems, Regents exam scores, and high school graduation rates, the study found.

The experiment targeted 200 high-need schools and 20,000 teachers between the 2007-2008 and 2009-2010 school years. The Bloomberg administration quietly discontinued it last year, turning back on the mayor’s early vow to expand the program quickly.

The program handed out bonuses based on the schools’ results on the city’s progress report cards. The report cards grade schools based primarily on how much progress they make in improving students’ state test scores. A so-called “compensation team” at each school decided how to distribute the money — a maximum of $3,000 per teachers union member, if the school completely met its target, and $1,500 per union member if the school improved its report card score by 75%.

The deal was seen as a landmark in 2007 when Mayor Bloomberg announced it with then-United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten by his side. “I am a capitalist, and I am in favor of incentives for individual people,” Bloomberg said then, while Weingarten emphasized that schools could decide to distribute bonuses evenly among educators. She called the program “transcendent.”

In his study, published as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, Fryer writes that researchers were surprised to see that schools that won bonuses overwhelmingly decided to distribute the cash fairly evenly among teachers. More than 80 percent of schools that won bonuses gave the same dollar amount to almost all of the eligible educators.

Researchers were also surprised to find that middle school students actually seemed to be worse off. After three years attending schools involved in the project, middle school students’ math and English test scores declined by a statistically significant amount compared to students attending similar schools that were not part of the project.

The study adds to a research literature on teacher incentive pay that is decidedly more lukewarm than much of the popular conversation about teacher pay. 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.

Almost all schools gave nearly all of their teachers the same sized bonus.

Nevertheless, a person’s position on teacher merit pay has become a litmus test for her reform credentials in many education circles. During his campaign, President Obama used his support for merit pay — traditionally scorned by teachers unions — as evidence that he was willing to challenge traditional Democratic Party thinking. Now, the Obama administration has boosted support for the Teacher Incentive Fund, a program that funds local experiments in incentive pay.

What explains the discrepancy between programs in the U.S. and elsewhere? Fryer rejects several explanations. He argues that the $3,000 bonus (just 4 percent of the average annual teacher salary in the program) was not too small to make a difference, citing examples of effective programs in India and Kenya that gave out bonuses that were an even smaller proportion of teachers’ salaries. He also rejects the possibility that schools’ decisions to use group, rather than individual, incentives was the problem, citing a 2002 study of a program in Israel that used group incentives.

Instead, he says the challenge is that American plans aren’t clear about what teachers can do to receive the reward. In New York City, the bonuses didn’t come simply if students’ test scores rose; the test scores had to rise in comparison to a group of similar schools. So did other measures considered by the city report card, including the surveys that ask students, teachers, and parents for subjective opinions about schools.

Fryer argues that the complexity made it “difficult, if not impossible, for teachers to know how much effort they should exert or how that effort influences student achievement.”

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”