This looks like bad news for proponents of merit-pay for teachers: New York City's Department of Education on Sunday announced it would abandon a three-year, $56 million performance-pay program aimed at boosting classroom performance. Turns out, the program didn't work as advertised (and, in fact, the department had already suspended it in January, citing budgetary constraints).
But looks can be deceiving.
The decision came hours before the RAND Corp. published its damning findings after a multi-year evaluation of the program, which distributed annual bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.
"Overall," write the RAND researchers, "the program had no positive effects on student achievement at any grade level. Researcher analysis of student achievement on the state's accountability tests found no positive effects overall for students attending elementary, middle or K-8 schools in years one through three, and for high schools students during the first two years of the program."
The New York Times is portraying the story as one more strike against the very concept of merit pay for teachers, even as reformers struggle mightily to prove the concept can work under the right circumstances. (The New York Post was characteristically more blunt with its story, which carried the headline: "Teach boo$t a bust.")
"The results add to a growing body of evidence nationally that so-called pay-for-performance bonuses for teachers that consist only of financial incentives have no effect on student achievement," reports the Times' Sharon Otterman.
And it would certainly appear that way. Looking a little more closely at RAND's findings, however, it's difficult to overcome the sense that New York City's program wasn't really a performance- or merit-pay program at all.
For one thing, the program doesn't appear to have given teachers any incentive to change their habits in the classroom. According to the RAND study: "Researchers found no differences between the reported teaching practices, effort and attitudes of teachers in treatment schools and those of the control group."
Even more critically, RAND's researchers found that many of the conditions necessary to change teachers' practices--"understanding, buy-in for the bonus criteria, perceived value of bonus, perceived fairness"--simply didn't "take root."
Finally, and incredibly, the RAND study revealed that "a majority of the schools disseminated the bonuses equally among staff, despite program guidelines granting school committees the flexibility to distribute the bonus shares as they deemed fit." (Emphasis added.)
Call that whatever you like, just don't call it merit pay.
A surprised and disappointed Mayor Mike Bloomberg told the Post: "I would have thought it would have had a bigger effect." When your performance-pay program isn't paying for better performance, the only effect you can expect is more of the same.