WASHINGTON— A study released Tuesday found that merely offering teachers annual bonuses of up to $15,000 had no effect on student test scores.
The results suggest that teachers in the study already were working so hard that the lure of extra money failed to induce them to intensify their efforts or change methods.
"Pay reform is often thought to be a magic bullet," said Matthew Springer, a Vanderbilt University education professor who led the study in Nashville public schools. "That doesn't appear to be the case here. We need to develop more thoughtful and comprehensive ways of thinking about compensation. But at the same time, we're not even sure whether incentive pay is an effective strategy for improving the system itself."
With backing from federal and state governments and private foundations, a growing number of public schools in recent years have embraced paying teachers depending, at least in part, on how much they raise student achievement.
In Hillsborough County, where a vast experiment is under way to find ways to improve schools, the study was regarded as too narrow to be of much help.
David Steele, project director for the seven-year partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Tuesday that Hillsborough is already providing extra support to teachers, including those taking part in its state-funded merit pay program.
And its Gates reforms, which include a performance pay system, focus on training and mentoring teachers to boost student performance. The Vanderbilt study excluded those variables.
Springer "could have been referring to Hillsborough when he mentions 'more nuanced solutions,' " Steele said. "(Our) mentoring program, for example, is exactly the type of thing Springer identifies as missing from the Nashville experiment."
Such differences make it impossible to compare the study's results with what's happening in Hillsborough, he said.
President Barack Obama has encouraged the pay incentive movement, despite skepticism from some teachers unions and from lawmakers within his party.
In a three-year experiment backed by federal funding, researchers tracked what happened in Nashville schools when math teachers in grades 5 through 8 were offered bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 for hitting targets in annual test-score gains. About 300 teachers volunteered, and half were assigned to a control group ineligible for the bonuses.
Researchers designed the bonuses, funded by a private donor, to be large enough to function as legitimate incentives.
On the whole, researchers found no significant difference between the results from classes led by teachers who received bonuses and those from classes led by teachers who did not.
Obama administration officials and a range of experts were quick to note that the study did not examine the effect of performance pay in combination with other measures.
Under Obama, officials say, a federal program that backs performance pay efforts in dozens of school systems has quadrupled to $400 million a year. Federal officials say a number of such efforts have shown positive results; they also are planning a comprehensive review of the program.
Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report, which used information from the Washington Post.