Sound a bit harsh? Perhaps. But if this theory is right, it could also be a major breakthrough.
THE POWER OF THREATS
Thanks to education reformers such as former D.C. schools chancellor
Michelle Rhee, many of us are now familiar with the idea of merit pay -- the notion that teachers' earnings should be tied to their students'
success. Unions have pushed back hard against the idea. In terms of
public policy, it often translates into handing out year-end bonuses to
instructors who get the best results, with the hope that the promise of a
larger paycheck will motivate them to work harder when they're up in
front of the chalkboard.
But Levitt, Fryer and Co. argue that
there's a serious problem with merit pay. So far, they say, there's been
scant evidence that it actually works. Studies of teacher incentive
programs in Tennessee and New York City failed to find any signs that
they improved student learning. In the New York experiment, which
Harvard's Fryer conducted, the impact may have even been detrimental.
loss aversion. The authors theorized that instead of offering a
lump-sum bonus to teachers come summertime, it might be more effective
to give instructors money upfront, then warn them that they would have
to pay it back if their students didn't hit the proper benchmarks.
Rather than tap into teachers' ambition, they'd tap into their anxiety.
test their idea, the authors designed an experiment for the 2010-2011
school year involving 150 K-8 teachers from Chicago Heights, a
low-income community in Illinois. The instructors were randomly assigned
to a control group or one of two main bunches, which I'll shorthand as the "winners" and the
"losers." The winners agreed to work under a traditional year-end bonus
structure, where they could make up to $8,000 extra based on their
students' standardized test scores. The losers were given $4,000 off the
bat and informed that if their students' turned in below-average
results, they'd have to pay a portion of it back commensurate with just
how poor their scores were. On the flip side, an above-average
performance could earn them additional bonus money, up to the full
The authors then divided the winners and losers again so
that some teachers would be rewarded based on their results as teams of two,
and others would be rewarded based on their results as individuals.
vacation time, the losers had won. In math, paying teachers a year-end
bonus had no statistically significant effect. When teachers had money
to lose, though, their students over performed. The impact was large --
the equivalent of improving a teacher's skills by one full standard
deviation -- and the pattern held whether teachers were compensated as a
team or as individuals. The authors' data on reading scores turned
out to be shakier, since most students ultimately had more than one
instructor working with them on language skills, but it indicated a