The Year In Research On Market-Based Education Reform: 2013 Edition

Posted by on December 17, 2013

In the three most discussed and controversial areas of market-based education reform – performance pay, charter schools and the use of value-added estimates in teacher evaluations – 2013 saw the release of a couple of truly landmark reports, in addition to the normal flow of strong work coming from the education research community (see our reviews from 2010, 2011 and 2012).*

In one sense, this building body of evidence is critical and even comforting, given not only the rapid expansion of charter schools, but also and especially the ongoing design and implementation of new teacher evaluations (which, in many cases, include performance-based pay incentives). In another sense, however, there is good cause for anxiety. Although one must try policies before knowing how they work, the sheer speed of policy change in the U.S. right now means that policymakers are making important decisions on the fly, and there is great deal of uncertainty as to how this will all turn out.

Moreover, while 2013 was without question an important year for research in these three areas, it also illustrated an obvious point: Proper interpretation and application of findings is perhaps just as important as the work itself. Read More »


Teacher Leadership As A School Improvement Strategy

Posted by on February 19, 2013

Our guest author today is David B. Cohen, a National Board Certified high school English teacher in Palo Alto, CA, and the associate director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His blog is at InterACT.

As we settle into 2013, I find myself increasingly optimistic about the future of the teaching profession. There are battles ahead, debates to be had and elections to be contested, but, as Sam Cooke sang, “A change is gonna come.”

The change that I’m most excited about is the potential for a shift towards teacher leadership in schools and school systems. I’m not naive enough to believe it will be a linear or rapid shift, but I’m confident in the long-term growth of teacher leadership because it provides a common ground for stakeholders to achieve their goals, because it’s replicable and scalable, and because it’s working already.

Much of my understanding of school improvement comes from my teaching career – now approaching two decades in the classroom, mostly in public high schools. However, until six years ago, I hadn’t seen teachers putting forth a compelling argument about how we might begin to transform our profession. A key transition for me was reading a Teacher Solutions report from the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). That 2007 report, Performance-Pay for Teachers: Designing a System that Students Deserve, showed how the concept of performance pay could be modified and improved upon with better definitions of a variety of performance, and differentiated pay based on differentiated professional practice, rather than arbitrary test score targets. I ended up joining the CTQ Teacher Leaders Network the same year, and have had the opportunity ever since to learn from exceptional teachers from around the country. Read More »


The Year In Research On Market-Based Education Reform: 2012 Edition

Posted by on December 20, 2012

** Reprinted here in the Washington Post

2012 was another busy year for market-based education reform. The rapid proliferation of charter schools continued, while states and districts went about the hard work of designing and implementing new teacher evaluations that incorporate student testing data, and, in many cases, performance pay programs to go along with them.

As in previous years (see our 2010 and 2011 reviews), much of the research on these three “core areas” – merit pay, charter schools, and the use of value-added and other growth models in teacher evaluations – appeared rather responsive to the direction of policy making, but could not always keep up with its breakneck pace.*

Some lag time is inevitable, not only because good research takes time, but also because there’s a degree to which you have to try things before you can see how they work. Nevertheless, what we don’t know about these policies far exceeds what we know, and, given the sheer scope and rapid pace of reforms over the past few years, one cannot help but get the occasional “flying blind” feeling. Moreover, as is often the case, the only unsupportable position is certainty. Read More »


Describing, Explaining And Affecting Teacher Retention In D.C.

Posted by on November 11, 2012

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has released a new report on teacher retention in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). It is a spinoff of their “The Irreplaceables” report, which was released a few months ago, and which is discussed in this post. The four (unnamed) districts from that report are also used in this one, and their results are compared with those from DCPS.

I want to look quickly at this new supplemental analysis, not to rehash the issues I raised about“The Irreplaceables,” but rather because of DCPS’s potential importance as a field test site for a host of policy reform ideas – indeed, the majority of core market-based reform policies have been in place in D.C. for several years, including teacher evaluations in which test-based measures are the dominant component, automatic dismissals based on those ratings, large performance bonuses, mutual consent for excessed teachers and a huge charter sector. There are many people itching to render a sweeping verdict, positive or negative, on these reforms, most often based on pre-existing beliefs, rather than solid evidence.

Although I will take issue with a couple of the conclusions offered in this report, I’m not going to review it systematically. I think research on retention is important, and it’s difficult to produce reports with original analysis, while very easy to pick them apart. Instead, I’m going to list a couple of findings in the report that I think are worth examining, mostly because they speak to larger issues. Read More »


Burden Of Proof, Benefit Of Assumption

Posted by on January 20, 2012

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of D.C. public schools, is a lightning rod. Her confrontational style has made her many friends as well as enemies. As is usually the case, people’s reaction to her approach in no small part depends on whether or not they support her policy positions.

I try to be open-minded toward people with whom I don’t often agree, and I can certainly accept that people operate in different ways. Honestly, I have no doubt as to Ms. Rhee’s sincere belief in what she’s doing; and, even if I think she could go about it differently, I respect her willingness to absorb so much negative reaction in order to try to get it done.

What I find disturbing is how she continues to try to build her reputation and advance her goals based on interpretations of testing results that are insulting to the public’s intelligence. Read More »


Beyond Anecdotes: The Evidence About Financial Incentives And Teacher Retention

Posted by on January 12, 2012

** Also posted here on “Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet” in the Washington Post

Our guest author today is Eleanor Fulbeck, who earned her Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

A couple of weeks ago, an article in the New York Times, written by reporter Sam Dillon, took a look at the new incentive program being used by the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Under this plan (called “Impact Plus”), teachers rated “highly effective” by the district’s new evaluation system are eligible for large cash bonuses and/or permanent salary increases.

Dillon notes that, “The profession is notorious for losing thousands of its brightest young teachers within a few years, which many experts attribute to low starting salaries and a traditional step-raise structure that rewards years of service and academic degrees rather than success in the classroom.” He also profiles several teachers who received the bonuses, most of whom say it played a role in their decision to remain in the classroom.

Putting aside these anecdotes and characterizations of “experts’” views, the idea that financial incentives – such as bonuses for performance or teaching in hard-to-staff schools – is a key to boosting teacher retention is a complex empirical question, and an open one at that. Read More »


Teacher Retention: Estimating The Effects Of Financial Incentives In Denver

Posted by on January 3, 2012

Our guest author today is Eleanor Fulbeck, who earned her Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011, and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania.

There is currently much interest in improving access to high-quality teachers (Clotfelter, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2010; Hanushek, 2007) through improved recruitment and retention. Prior research has shown that it is difficult to retain teachers, particularly in high-poverty schools (Boyd et al., 2011; Ingersoll, 2004). Although there is no one reason for this difficulty, there is some evidence to suggest teachers may leave certain schools or the profession in part because of dissatisfaction with low salaries (Ingersoll, 2001).

Thus, it is possible that by offering teachers financial incentives, whether in the form of alternative compensation systems or standalone bonuses, they would become more satisfied with their jobs and retention would increase. As of yet, however, support for this approach has not been grounded in empirical research.

Denver’s Professional Compensation System for Teachers (“ProComp”) is one of the most prominent alternative teacher compensation reforms in the nation.* Via a combination of ten financial incentives, ProComp seeks to increase student achievement by motivating teachers to improve their instructional practices and by attracting and retaining high-quality teachers to work in the district.

My research examines ProComp in terms of: 1) whether it has increased retention rates; 2) the relationship between retention and school quality (defined in terms of student test score growth); and 3) the reasons underlying these effects. I pay special attention to the effects of ProComp on schools that serve high concentrations of poor students – “Hard to Serve” (HTS) schools where teachers are eligible to receive a financial incentive to stay. The quantitative findings are discussed briefly below (I will discuss my other results in a future post). Read More »


Three Questions For Those Who Dismiss The Nashville Merit Pay Study

Posted by on September 27, 2010

The reaction from many performance pay advocates to the Nashville evaluation released last week has been that the study is relatively meaningless (see here and here for examples).  The general interpretation: The results show that the pay bonuses do not improve student achievement, but short-term test score gains are not the ”true purpose” of these incentive programs. What they are really supposed to improve, so the line goes, is the quality of people who pursue teaching as a career, as well as their retention rates.

While I disagree that the findings are not important (they are, if for no other reason than they discredit the idea that teachers are holding their effort hostage to more money), I am sympathetic towards the view that the study didn’t tackle the big issues. Attracting the best possible people into the profession – and keeping them there – are much more meaningful goals than short-term test score gains, and they are not addressed in this study (though some results for retention are reported).

But this argument also begs a few important questions that I hope we can answer before the Nashville study fades into evaluation oblivion.  I have three of them. Read More »


Persistently Low-Performing Incentives

Posted by on September 21, 2010

Today, the National Center on Performance Incentives (NCPI) and the RAND Corporation released a long-awaited experimental evaluation of teacher performance pay in Nashville, Tenn. It finds that performance bonuses have virtually no effect on student math test scores (there were small but significant gains by fifth graders, but only in two of the three years examined, and the gains did not last into sixth grade).

Since this is such a politically contentious issue, these findings are likely to spark a lot of posturing and debate. So it’s worth trying to put them in context. As I discussed in a prior post, we now have at least preliminary results from three randomized experimental evaluations of merit pay in the U.S., the first contemporary, high-quality evidence of its kind.  This Nashville report and the two previously-released studies – one from Chicago and one from New York City’s schoolwide bonus program – reached the same conclusion: Performance bonuses for teachers have little or no discernable effect on student test scores. 

Although the NYC and Chicago findings are preliminary (the evaluations are still in progress), the NYC program provides schoolwide and not individual bonuses, and one additional study (Round Rock, Tex.) is yet to be released, the three already-released reports do represent a fairly impressive, though still very tentative, body of evidence on merit pay’s utility as a means to improve test scores.

And at this point, it’s a good bet that, when all the evaluations are final and the smoke has cleared, we will have to conclude that performance bonuses are, at the very least, a very unpromising policy for producing short-term test score gains.  Read More »


Performance Pay On (Randomized) Trial

Posted by on August 3, 2010

This is an exciting time for those of us who are strange enough to find research on teacher performance pay exciting. It is also, most likely, an anxious time for those with unyielding faith in its effectiveness. From all the chatter on performance incentives, and all the money we are putting into encouraging them, one might think they are a sure bet to work. But there’s actually very little good evidence on their effects in the U.S. As with a lot of education policy in fashion today, investing in performance pay is a leap of faith.

But now, just in time to be way too late, there are currently four high-quality evaluations of teacher performance pay programs in progress, and they are the first large-scale experimental studies of how these bonuses affect performance in the U.S. Read More »

Value-Added And Collateral Damage

Posted by on July 29, 2010

The idea that we should “fire bad teachers” has become the mantra of the day, as though anyone was seriously arguing that bad teachers should be kept. No one is. Instead, the real issue is, and has always been, identification.

Those of us who follow the literature about value-added models (VAM) – the statistical models designed to isolate the unique effect of teachers on their students’ test scores – hear a lot about their imprecision. But anyone listening to the public discourse on these methods, or, more frighteningly, making decisions on how to use them, might be completely unaware of the magnitude of that error. Read More »


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