Report compels NYC to end bonus program in schools
A study led by Julie Marsh, visiting associate professor at the USC Rossier School of Education, assessed the effectiveness of a schoolwide performance bonus program in New York City.
The results of the report convinced the city’s Department of Education to end the program, which gave financial rewards to educators based on the performance of their schools.
The report, “A Big Apple for Educators: New York City’s Experiment With Schoolwide Performance Bonuses,” was commissioned by the department to independently assess the program over a three-year period – from 2007 to 2010 – and whether it was meeting objectives for improving student performance. The researchers found there was no effect on student test scores, school report cards or the way teachers reported doing their jobs.
According to Marsh, several factors likely contributed to the lack of results. First, key supporting conditions, like participant understanding and buy-in, were lacking. More than one-third of the teachers in participating schools, for example, did not know how much money was at stake, what target their school needed to reach or how decisions were made about distributing the money. In addition, more than three-fourths of the teachers felt the bonus criteria relied too heavily on student test scores.
Second, Marsh said schools already exist within a high-stakes accountability environment and face significant pressure to perform well on the same measures incentivized by the bonus program. It is unclear how much more the bonuses motivated educators.
“It seems to me that teachers are already doing everything they can to help students perform well on these tests,” Marsh said. “There was no difference between schools with bonuses and those without in the actions teachers reported taking to help their schools achieve high state test scores.” In addition, teachers often reported that federal and local accountability pressures and intrinsic motivators (i.e., seeing their students learn new skills and knowledge) were more salient than financial bonuses.
Following the release of the report, New York City announced the suspension of its program.
Marsh said that while this one study does not prove that merit pay in schools is ineffective (as some opponents might argue), it does point to some potential concerns worth considering before adopting similar programs in the future.
The report and its effect on the citywide program was covered widely in The New York Times, New York Post, Education Week and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among other news outlets.
Based on her research, Marsh is working on a paper that examines how school decisions were made regarding the distribution of bonuses among staff members. New York City’s program granted a four-person committee in each school the authority to distribute the bonus pool (equivalent to $3,000 per union-represented staff member). Most of the committees distributed the bonuses equally, with school secretaries, for example, getting the same amount as teachers.