What Does the Vanderbilt Study Really Say (and Not Say) about Performance Pay?

The Denver Post reports this morning (via the Washington Post) about a newly-released Vanderbilt University study on teacher performance pay:

The study, which the authors and other experts described as the first scientifically rigorous review of merit pay in the United States, measured the effect of financial incentives on teachers in Nashville public schools and found that better pay alone was not enough to inspire gains.

Advocates of performance pay did not immediately challenge the methodology of the study. But they said its conclusions were narrow and failed to evaluate the full package of professional development and other measures that President Obama and philanthropists such as Bill Gates say are crucial to improving America’s public schools.

Does this mean we should throw out the whole idea of incentive or performance-based pay for school teachers? Not so fast.

First of all, a 2008 research project from the University of Arkansas suggests something near the opposite — that Little Rock teachers responded favorably to student achievement bonuses and students recorded measurable growth in math and reading, as a result.

Second, whether or not performance pay helps cause some teachers to work harder and more effectively, there are other motivations for enacting the policy. As the Eduwonk explains (and is corroborated by Dr. Eric Hanushek in this Education Week story and by Rick Hess on his blog) about the new Nashville study:

The most powerful hope of reforming teacher compensation is to change many of the people who make up the instructional workforce, not to change the behavior of some existing teachers. In other words, make the system more attractive to potential teachers who bring the backgrounds, abilities and other characteristics to effect the greatest change in student learning, especially in (but not limited to) targeted areas and assignments.

Finally, of course, creating performance-based teacher pay systems is not a “silver bullet,” nor should it be seen that way. Compensation needs to be reformed alongside training, development, evaluation and job protections — both for teachers and principals. (Not to mention the importance of further empowering parents and enhancing competition through school choice.) The job is starting to get done in places, but let’s not put the brakes on reform efforts by reading too much into the results of one study.