Pay-for-performance teacher bonus programs in the New York City schools did not increase student achievement and may have decreased it at larger schools, Harvard economist and Houston school system Apollo 20 advisor Roland Fryer says.
The Houston Independent School District spent more than $42 million this year on performance bonuses, which school leaders say is a key part of having an effective teacher in every classroom.
Fryer serves as the leader of the HISD partnership with Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, known as EdLabs, which has been working closely and making recommendations for HISD’s school turnaround program, Apollo 20.
“I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior,” Fryer says in a paper published online this month. “If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.”
The report is described on its title page as a “working paper,” a term often used to describe the preliminary version of a study that has not yet been formally published.
HISD says its bonuses are not meant to make teachers work harder. The goal, spokesman Jason Spencer said, “is to award and retain top teachers who are already in the district and to attract more great teachers into HISD.”
In an e-mail to Texas Watchdog, Spencer said the district has “strong data” that shows ASPIRE is working in HISD:
- The percentage of students scoring at the highest level, “commended,” on the state achievement test known as TAKS “has increased significantly” in HISD.
- More people are applying for vacant HISD teaching jobs than they were five years ago. The district received 69 applications for every position in 2006 and 169 in 2009.
- HISD has increased its teacher retention rate by three percent.
In the new study, Fryer focuses on the $75 million in bonuses given out to more than 20,000 New York City teachers between 2007 and 2010.
The New York study offered to give bonuses of $3,000 per teacher to every school that met its target report card scores and bonuses of $1,500 per teacher to every school that met more than 75% of its target scores. (On average, Fryer wrote, that equated to a bonus of about $180,000 to schools that aced the report cards and $90,000 to the other group.)
The schools themselves -- chosen from some of New York’s lowest performers -- were then allowed to decide how to spend or dole out their bonus money. Many chose to hand out bonuses of about $3,000 to most of their teachers, the study found.
“Providing incentives to teachers based on (a) school’s performance on metrics involving student achievement, improvement, and the learning environment did not increase student achievement in any statistically meaningful way,” Fryer says in the report. “If anything, student achievement declined.”
Incentive programs have, however, worked in school systems in other nations, Fryer wrote. As for why they didn’t work in New York, his theories included the possibility that the bonuses -- about $3,000 per teacher -- were too small to matter.
Or, he said, it could be that the individuals schools’ habit of doling the bonuses out equally to most of their teachers, instead of giving the most money to the highest performers, lessened the incentive.
(By comparison, the HISD teacher who won this year’s largest bonus, a teacher at Lyons Elementary, received $11,000, while the average award to HISD teachers was more than $3,000, the Chronicle reported.)
Also, Fryer said the criteria on which the bonuses were based -- the report cards -- were similar to the criteria by which the schools were already being judged for benchmarks such as “adequate yearly progress.”
Several states including Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Texas have implemented statewide student-achievement incentive programs for districts and schools.
Sixteen thousand five hundred HISD employees received bonuses this year -- that’s 92% of the district’s bonus-eligible employees. The average teacher received $3,614,and the bonuses went to 99% percent of HISD teachers instructing students in core subjects like math, science and reading.
Over the next five years, HISD is slated to receive $31.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education to support the district’s initiative to have an effective teacher in every classroom. Sixteen million dollars of that is expected to go the ASPIRE bonus program, HISD says.
The grant is part of the Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund, through which more than 60 educational organizations in 27 states are set to receive $1.2 billion over the next five years.
HISD says Apollo 20 is “based on key tenets developed by Dr. Fryer and EdLabs,” which include having effective principals and teachers, tutoring and longer school days. Grier has estimated that the partnership with EdLabs will cost HISD about $150,000, but both Grier and Fryer have said that Fryer is not charging for his consulting services.
Earlier this year, Grier told the Houston Chronicle that the bonus program may be in need of some changes:
"We've got to take a hard look at that program, and we've got to be willing to change it," Grier said. "When you have 92 percent of your employees receiving a bonus, you've got to ask yourself, 'Is it really a bonus program, or is it a program where you're spreading out $42 million?'"
HISD trustees last week approved cutting funding next year for the ASPIRE program by more than $4 million. The cut will eliminate the attendance bonus and restrict the campus-based incentives to schools that receive the top two state rankings of “exemplary” or “recognized.”
Should HISD continue its teacher-bonus program? Texas Watchdog wants to hear from you. Contact Lynn Walsh, Lynn@TexasWatchdog.org or on Twitter @LWalsh.
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Photo by flickr user monochrome, used under a Creative Commons license