The study was conducted by the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt. The center, which takes no advocacy position on the issue, was created at the university's highly regarded Peabody College of Education and Human Development in 2006 with a $10 million federal research grant.
In a three-year experiment funded by the federal grant and aided by the Rand Corp., researchers tracked what happened in Nashville schools when math teachers in grades 5 through 8 were offered bonuses of $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 for hitting annual test-score targets. About 300 teachers volunteered. Researchers randomly assigned half of the participants to a control group ineligible for the bonuses and the other half to an experimental group that could receive bonuses if their students reached certain benchmarks.
Researchers designed the bonuses to be large enough to function as a legitimate incentive for teachers whose average salary, according to a union official, is between $40,000 and $50,000. There were no additional variables in the experiment: no professional development, mentoring or other elements meant to affect test scores. The bonuses, totaling nearly $1.3 million, were funded by businessman Orrin Ingram, according to news reports. A university spokeswoman said Tuesday evening that she could not confirm those reports, and Ingram could not be reached for comment.
On the whole, researchers found no significant difference between the test results from classes led by teachers eligible for bonuses and those led by teachers who were ineligible. Bonuses appeared to have some positive effect in the fifth grade, researchers said, but they discounted that finding in part because the difference faded out when students moved to the sixth grade.
This prompted the following memorable bit of edu-speak from the administration:
"While this is a good study, it only looked at the narrow question of whether more pay motivates teachers to try harder," said Peter Cunningham, assistant U.S. education secretary for communications and outreach. "What we are trying to do is change the culture of teaching by giving all educators the feedback they need to get better while rewarding and incentivizing the best to teach in high-need schools, hard to staff subjects. This study doesn't address that objective."Definitely a strong showing by Cunningham but he didn't mange to work in the word 'excellence.' That's going to cost him some points