One of the big policy debates in education is whether paying teachers bonuses increases student achievement along with teachers’ bank accounts. A new federal report puts a fresh twist on this old debate: does it matter if something works if the benefit is very tiny? And its findings also shed light on why even the very best research doesn’t tell us much about how merit pay works and whether it’s worthwhile.
First, some background. The federal government has given out more than $1.8 billion in taxpayer money to school districts to reward their best teachers. The payouts began in 2006 under the George W. Bush Administration when policymakers believed that the same kinds of pay incentives that motivate salesmen in the private sector might also improve the teaching force. Initial studies of these bonus schemes for teachers weren’t promising. But researchers who studied the federally funded efforts found no benefits to students in New York City or Nashville. Many, including myself, concluded that merit pay doesn’t work because teachers, unlike salesmen, aren’t terribly motivated by money.