Important Ignored Research: Teacher Incentives are Counter-Productive

Latest News You Never Read or Saw in the Mainstream Media:

Harvard Researcher Conducts Randomized Experiment in New York Schools and Concludes That Paying Teachers to Improve Student Achievement Doesn’t Work

This is an extremely important study, and was therefore ignored. After all, the ruling class feels that it’s much more important for you to know the latest updates on Michelle Rhee’s posturings, the stupidity of TV show American Idol, felon Charles Colson’s delusions of grandeur, and Charlie Sheen’s antics.

This study was done by Harvard researcher and wunderkind Roland Fryer, a partner of Michelle Rhee in an abortive experiment in DCPS and elsewhere to raise student achievement by paying students for doing the right thing — an experiment which also had no positive results.

A couple of excerpts from the study:
“The results from our incentive experiments are informative. Providing incentives to teachersbased on school’s performance on metrics involving student achievement, improvement, and thelearning environment did not increase student achievement in any statistically meaningful way.If anything, student achievement declined. Intent-to-treat estimates yield treatment e!ects of -0.015 … standard deviations (hereafter [SD]) in mathematics and -0.011 [SD] … in reading forelementary schools, and -0.048 [SD] …  in math and -0.032 SD … in reading for middle schools, per year. Thus, if an elementary school student attended schools that implemented the teacher incentive program for three years, her test scores would decline by -0.045 [SD] in math and by -0.033 [SD] in reading – neither of which is statistically significant. For middle school students, however, the negative impacts are more sizeable: -0.144 [SD] in math and -0.096 [SD] in reading over a three-year period.

“The impact of teacher incentives on student attendance, behavioral incidences, and alternative achievement outcomes such as predictive state assessments, course grades, Regents exam scores, and high school graduation rates are all negligible. Furthermore, we find no evidence that teacher incentives affect teacher behavior, measured by retention in district or in school, number of personal absences, and teacher responses to the learning environment survey, which partly determinedwhether a school received the performance bonus.” (p. 5 of the study0

“[A]ll estimates of the effect of teacher incentives on student achievement are negative in both elementary and middle school – and statistically significant so in middle school. The … effect of the teacher incentive scheme is -0.011 SD [standard deviations] …in reading and -0.015 s … in math for elementary schools, and -0.032 [SD] … in reading and -0.048 s … in math for middle schools. The effect sizes in middle school are non-trivial – a student who attends a participating middle school for three years of our experiment is expected to lose 0.096 [SD] in reading and 0.144 [SD] in math.” (p.16)

Fryer compares the failure of his experiment to supposed ‘successes’ in performance incentives in third-world countries. However, let’s look at two of those ‘success’ stories:

“Duflo and Hanna (2005) randomly sampled 60 schools in rural India, and provided them with financial incentives to reduce absenteeism. The incentive scheme was simple; teachers’ pay was linear in their attendance, at the rate of Rs 50 per day, after the first 10 days of each month. They found that teacher absence rate was significantly lower in treatment schools (22 percent) compared to control schools (42 percent), and that student achievement in treatment schools were 0.17 [SD] higher than in control schools.”

(Duflo, Esther and Rema Hanna. 2005. “Monitoring Works: Getting Teachers to Come to School.” NBER [National Bureau of Economic Research] Working Paper No. 11880.)

NOTE: I was shocked to find that 50 Indian Rupees both today and in 2005 are worth a little more than one US dollar! (See this page on exchange rates, for example.) If all it takes to reduce teacher absenteeism from 42% of the teachers absent each day (two out of five) to 22% absent each day(one teacher out of five) is a bit more than a single dollar per day, imagine what it would be like if teachers in India were paid an extra TEN dollars per day to go to work!!

“Glewwe et al. (2010) report results from a randomized evaluation that provided teachers for grades 4 through 8 in Kenya with group incentives based on test scores and find that while test scores increased in program schools in the short run, students did not retain the gains after the incentive program ended. They interpret these results as being consistent with teachers expending effort towards short-term increases in test scores but not towards long-term learning.”

(Glewwe, Paul, Nauman Ilias, and Michael Kremer. 2010. ”Teacher Incentives.” American Economic Journal, 2(3): 205-227.)

NOTE: Given the amount of corruption allegedly present in many African and other third-world countries, there is another possible (but more cynical) explanation: plain, outright manipulation and cheating by the teachers and local school administrators in order to earn a bit more money by producing transiently higher scores. Such dishonesty has been documented many times here in the US, so why not in Kenya?

Published in: on March 23, 2011 at 10:34 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] a new study by Harvard researcher Roland Fryer finds that  merit pay, a favorite reform strategy of corporate […]


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