NEW YORK — Teacher merit pay. It’s one of those perennially popular policy ideas that, historically, hasn’t worked very well.
A few years ago, New York City offered teachers in select schools $3,000 if the entire school’s test scores went up. But scores at the merit pay schools did not improve any faster than scores at control schools. (In some of the merit-pay schools, scores actually went down.) In Nashville, teachers who volunteered for a merit pay experiment were eligible for $5,000 to $15,000 in bonuses if kids learned more. Students of those teachers performed no better on tests than students in a control group. And in Chicago, teachers were paid more if they mentored their colleagues and produced learning gains for kids. Again, students of the merit-pay teachers performed no better than other kids.
That’s why the results of a new study, the Talent Transfer Initiative, financed by the federal government, are so important. Surprisingly, this experiment found merit pay can work.
In 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and Houston, researchers at Mathematica identified open positions in high-poverty schools with low test scores, where kids performed at just around the 30th percentile in both reading and math. To fill some of those positions, they selected from a special group of transfer teachers, all of whom had top 20 percent track records of improving student achievement at lower poverty schools within the districts, and had applied to earn $20,000 to switch jobs. The rest of the open positions were filled through the usual processes, in which principals select candidates from a regular applicant pool.
If a transfer teacher stayed in her new, tougher placement for two years, she’d earn the $20,000 in five installments, regardless of how well her new students performed. In public education, $20,000 is a whopping sum, far more generous than the typical merit pay bonus of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.