performance pay

Teacher merit pay has merit when it comes to student scores, analysis shows

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
Students in Melissa Hall’s fourth-grade class raise their hands to answer questions at Cherokee Elementary School in Memphis.

Heaps of conflicting studies exist on whether teacher incentive pay improves student performance. Now after wading through decades of findings, researchers at Vanderbilt University have come to a conclusion.

It does.

Student test scores have a modest but statistically significant improvement when an incentive pay plan is in place for their teachers, say researchers who analyzed findings from 44 primary studies between 1997 and 2016.

“Approximately 74 percent of the effect sizes recorded in our review were positive. The influence was relatively similar across the two subject areas, mathematics and English language arts,” said Matthew Springer, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

The academic increase is roughly equivalent to adding three weeks of learning to the school year, based on studies conducted in U.S. schools, and four weeks based on studies across the globe.

But the 16-month analysis, released on Wednesday, also notes some important caveats that may help explain why different studies seem to waffle on the effect of pay-for-performance plans.

“We found that effect sizes are highly sensitive to program design and study context, so there are many issues that policymakers should look at when they’re considering or implementing a merit pay plan,” said researcher Lam D. Pham.

For instance, the evidence suggests that rewarding teachers as a group is almost twice as effective as rewarding them individually based on rank-order.

The rollout is important, too. In one study that found no effect on student test scores in Chicago, researchers noted that teachers who could have been impacted didn’t appear to understand that a merit pay plan existed.

“I don’t think there’s one design that will work across the board,” Pham added. “You have to consider the local teacher labor market. For instance, designing an incentive plan for a rural area where there aren’t many teachers to hire or retain is going to look different than in somewhere like Washington, D.C., where there are tons of teachers available.”

Merit pay in education is a longstanding idea dating to the early 1700s in Great Britain, and numerous U.S. cities used some form in the early 1900s. The approach has garnered considerable attention in the last decade in America as the federal government has awarded more than $2 billion across some 30 states to design and launch teacher performance pay systems.

Teacher pay is significant because salaries account for nearly 60 percent of school expenses nationwide, and research is clear that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling (although out-of-school factors matter more). About 95 percent of public school districts set teacher pay based on years of experience and highest degree earned, but merit pay advocates argue that the approach needs to change.

In Tennessee, dozens of school systems have tied salary increases to effectiveness in the classroom, including improved student test scores. The shift was enabled under a 2010 law passed as part of the state’s winning bid for a federal Race to the Top grant. But many teachers have said they don’t trust Tennessee’s evaluation system and are frustrated by the elevated focus on testing.

Pham emphasizes the importance of engagement, teacher support and working through questions about merit pay, which he says takes time.

“You can’t just do it in one or two years and expect to see huge gains,” he said.

“And if we don’t build capacity and support (for teachers), it won’t work,” he added, citing variables such as coaching, better resources, stronger school leadership and smaller classes. “I think where we should look next is pairing pay incentives with teacher supports.”

Emerging studies also suggest that merit pay can improve teacher recruitment and retention, which has been found to contribute to improving student performance, particularly in low-income areas.

You can find the full report here.

Evaluating Evaluations

Tennessee teachers are warming to evaluations as a tool to improve their work, survey says

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A Memphis teacher engages with his students at Cherokee Elementary School.

When Tennessee launched a massive overhaul of its education system in 2011, the biggest outcry came from educators upset about the new process for evaluating their work.

Most questioned the fairness and accuracy of capturing good teaching on a scale of 1 to 5. Others called the process burdensome and bewildering. Making student test score data a lynchpin of the change prompted even more concern.

But after six years of rating teachers and refining its process, Tennessee is getting a warmer response from educators about their teacher evaluations.

The state’s latest educator survey, released on Wednesday, shows that 74 percent of teachers found evaluations helpful last year in improving their teaching, almost double from 2012. First-year teachers were especially positive, with 85 percent giving the process good marks.

The results are encouraging for state, district and school leaders who have sought to make the evaluation process a tool to promote better teaching, rather than just a personnel-related checklist for both principals and teachers.

“This shows a huge positive shift in teachers’ perception of the evaluation system and its impact,” said Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who helped design the survey and collect the data.

“Educators are viewing evaluations as less about judgment of their performance and more about identifying the areas where they can improve. And schools are figuring out how to provide targeted support and professional learning opportunities.”

Still, a fourth of the state’s teachers say the evaluation isn’t helping them improve — and that’s not just from educators who received low scores.

Teachers who found the evaluation most useful also reported receiving specific feedback from administrators, along with classroom materials, access to staff expertise, and adequate time to collaborate and prepare.

The race to transform teaching

Spurred by a half-billion-dollar influx of funding through the federal Race to the Top competition, Tennessee has been a national leader in transforming its teacher evaluations. Its system combines student growth from test scores, classroom observations by administrators and, for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects, school- and district-wide measurements of growth on other kinds of assessments and student work.

And as state tests — and new evaluation systems that rely on them — have faced pushback across the country, Tennessee has mostly stuck with its strategy. (The state did temporarily reduce the weight of test scores in the transition to a new standardized test.)

But the road to the new, tougher evaluation model has been bumpy.

Critics blame the process, especially the student achievement component, for an exodus of teachers from the profession. Teachers complained that feedback from classroom observations was initially fuzzy, and its misalignment with student growth results has led to ongoing changes in training and coaching for evaluators.

“Teachers have never been opposed to being evaluated. They just want a system that accurately identifies the areas in which they are excelling and the areas where they could improve,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

Leaders of the Professional Educators of Tennessee say there’s still lots of room for improvement.

“We hear from our members that evaluators are better trained today and provide better feedback,” the group said in a statement. “We must continually look at the element of support provided by districts to teachers.”

Lagging professional development opportunities are a key shortcoming identified in the educator survey. A third of teachers report not receiving any feedback on their classroom evaluations, and half of the state’s teachers reported that they take part in training once a month that’s a waste of time. They say it’s usually prescribed by their school or district.

That statistic troubles Grissom.

“Part of the purpose of evaluations is to create growth opportunities,” he said. “Professional learning is the big lever that schools and districts can pull to move the needle on instruction.”

A statewide snapshot

Conducted last spring, the survey is Tennessee’s most comprehensive tool for gathering feedback from its educators.

Responses were up by more than 5,000 educators this year, representing 56 percent of the state’s teachers and 60 percent of its administrators. District and school-level data is available if their response rate was 45 percent or more.

You can find the state’s report about the survey here.

teacher campaign

Wanted: Millennials to teach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sharon Johnson, a teacher-in-training at Relay Graduate School of Education, instructs students at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis. SCORE hopes to attract more millennials to the teaching profession, especially to harder-to-staff subjects like science and math.

An influential education advocacy group has launched a statewide campaign to inspire millennials to teach in Tennessee.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, known as SCORE, kicked off its campaign Monday to recruit young people to high-needs schools in both rural and urban districts.

Dubbed “Teach Today. Change Tomorrow,” the effort includes a website and advertisements through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the radio.

The campaign gives special attention to the need for educators in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as recruiting a more diverse teaching force. While students of color make up 35 percent of Tennessee’s public school population, just 15 percent of its teachers identify as people of color — a concern both for SCORE and the State Department of Education, which works closely with the advocacy group.

About half of the state’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade, according to state officials.

“The mission of Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. is to inspire talented young people across Tennessee to become our state’s next generation of teachers,” said Jamie Woodson, executive chairman and CEO for SCORE. “By illustrating the positive impact that great teaching has on a community, we will show them that they have the power to change the future beyond the classroom.”

The campaign’s website includes information on how to become a teacher, as well as a Q&A that covers topics such as pay. (The statewide average is about $50,000, though the campaign’s site notes that Gov. Bill Haslam, in his penultimate year at the helm of state government, hopes to raise salaries more.)

Campaign partners include the Hyde Family Foundations, Nashville Public Education Foundation, Memphis Education Fund, Public Education Foundation Chattanooga, Conexión Américas, Lipscomb University, Teach For America Nashville, Crisp Communications, Tennessee Charter School Center and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Based in Nashville, SCORE is a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.