POINT Experiment Results Reveal Teacher Performance Pay Alone Does Not Improve Student Test Scores

Results from NCPI’s POINT experiment were released on September 21, 2010, and find rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of any other support program, does not raise student test scores. The Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) was a three-year study conducted in the Metropolitan Nashville School System from 2006-07 through 2008-09 school years. Middle school mathematics teachers voluntarily participated in a controlled experiment to assess the effect of financial rewards for teachers whose students showed unusually large gains on standardized tests. The experiment was intended to test the notion that rewarding teachers for improved scores would cause scores to rise. It was up to participating teachers to decide what, if anything, they needed to do to raise student performance: participate in more professional development, seek coaching, collaborate with other teachers, or simply reflect on their practices. Matthew Springer, NCPI’s executive director, said of the design, “We designed POINT in this manner not because we believed that an incentive system of this type is the most effective way to improve teaching performance, but because the idea of rewarding teachers on the basis of students’ test scores has gained such currency. We sought a clean test of the basic proposition: If teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up?”

By and large, results indicate that test scores did not go up. While the general trend in middle school mathematics performance was upward over the period of the project, students of teachers randomly assigned to the treatment group (eligible for bonuses) did not outperform students whose teachers were assigned to the control group (not eligible for bonuses). A positive effect of the incentives was detected in fifth grade during the second and third years of the experiment. This finding, which is robust to a variety of alternative estimation methods, is nonetheless of limited policy significance, for as yet this effect does not appear to persist after students leave fifth grade. Students whose fifth grade teacher was in the treatment group performed no better by the end of sixth grade than did sixth graders whose teacher the year before was in the control group. However, investigations into this finding will continue as further data become available, and it may be that evidence of persistence will appear among later cohorts

In POINT the maximum bonus an eligible teacher might earn was $15,000—a considerable increase over base pay. To receive this bonus, a teacher’s students had to perform at a level that historically had been reached by only the top five percent of middle school math teachers in a given year. Lesser amounts of $5,000 and $10,000 were awarded for performance at lower thresholds, corresponding to the 80th and 90th percentiles, respectively, of the same historical distribution. Teachers were therefore striving to reach a fixed target rather than competing against one another—in principle, all participating teachers could have attained these thresholds.

In addition to the analysis of student test scores, participating teachers completed lengthy surveys each spring over the course of the project. Analysis of survey findings reveal participating teachers generally favored extra pay for better teachers, in principle. They did not come away from their experience in POINT thinking the project had harmed their schools. But by and large, they did not endorse the notion that bonus recipients in POINT were better teachers or that failing to earn a bonus meant a teacher needed to improve. Most participants did not appear to buy in to the criteria used by POINT to determine who was teaching effectively. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that treatment teachers differed little from control teachers on a wide range of measures of effort and instructional practices. Where there were differences, they were not associated with higher achievement. By and large, POINT had little effect on what these teachers did in the classroom.

It should be kept in mind that POINT tested a particular model of incentive pay. The negative findings do not mean that another approach would not be successful. It might be more productive, for example, to reward teachers in teams, or to combine incentives with coaching or professional development. Springer explained, “We tested the most basic and foundational question related to performance incentives – Does bonus pay alone improve student outcomes? – and we found that it does not. These findings should raise the level of the debate to test more nuanced solutions, many of which are being implemented now across the country, to reform teacher compensation and improve student achievement.” Indeed, our experience with POINT underscores the importance of putting such alternatives to the test.

To read a copy of the POINT report, please click here.