In celebration of IES’s 20th anniversary, we’re telling the stories of our work and the significant impact that—together—we’ve had on education policy and practice. As IES continues to look towards a future focused on progress, purpose, and performance, Dr. Matthew G. Springer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discusses the merit pay debate and why the staying power of IES will continue to matter in the years to come.
Merit Pay for Teachers
There are very few issues that impact Americans more directly or more personally than education. The experience of school leaves people with deep memories, strong opinions, and a highly localized sense of how education works in a vast and diverse country. Bringing scientific rigor to a subject so near to people’s lives is incredibly important — and maddeningly hard. The idea of merit pay inspires strong reactions from politicians and the general public, but for a long time there was vanishingly little academic literature to support either the dismissive attitude of skeptics or the enthusiasm of supporters.
Given the stakes of the merit pay debate—the size of the nation’s teacher corps, the scale of local, state, and federal educational investments, and longstanding inequities in access to highly effective teachers—policymakers desperately need better insight into how teacher compensation might incentivize better outcomes. Critics worry merit pay creates negative competition, causes teachers to focus narrowly on incentivized outcomes, and disrupts the collegiate ethos of teaching and learning. On the other hand, supporters argue that merit pay helps motivate employees, attract and retain employees in the profession, and improve overall productivity.
Generating Evidence: The Role of IES-Funded Research
That’s precisely the kind of need that IES was designed to meet. In 2006, with the support of IES, I joined a group of research colleagues to launch the Project on Incentives in Teaching (POINT) to test some of the major theories around merit pay. We wanted to apply the most rigorous research design—a fully randomized control trial—to the real-world question of whether rewarding teachers for better student test scores would move the needle on student achievement.
But orchestrating a real-world experiment is much harder than doing an observational analysis. Creating a rigorous trial to assess merit pay required enormous diplomacy. There are a lot of stakeholders in American education, and conducting a meaningful test of different teacher pay regimes required signoff from the local branch of the teacher’s union, the national union, the local school board and elected leadership, and the state education bureaucracy all the way up to the governor. Running an experiment in a lab is one thing; running an experiment with real-world teachers leading real, live classrooms is quite another.
With IES support to carry out an independent and scientifically rigorous study, POINT was able to move forward with the support of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The results were not what most anticipated.
Despite offering up to $15,000 annually in incentive pay based on a value-added measure of teacher effectiveness, in general, we found no significant difference in student performance between the merit-pay recipients and teachers who weren’t eligible for bonuses.
As with all good scientific findings, we strongly believed that our results should be the start of a conversation, not presented as the final word. Throughout my career, I’ve seen one-off research findings treated by media and advocacy organizations as irrefutable proof of a particular viewpoint, but that’s not how scientific research works. My colleagues and I took care to publish a detailed account of our study’s implementation, including an honest discussion of its methodological limitations and political constraints. We called for more studies in more places, all in an effort to contest or refine the limited insights we were able to draw in Nashville. “One experiment is not definitive,” we wrote. “More experiments should be conducted to see whether POINT’s findings generalize to other settings.”
How IES-Funded Research Informs Policy and Practice
Around the time of the release of our findings, the Obama administration was announcing another investment in the Teacher Incentive Fund, a George W. Bush-era competitive grant program that rewarded teachers who proved effective in raising test scores. We were relieved that our study didn’t prompt the federal government to abandon ship on merit pay; rather, they reviewed our study findings and engaged in meaningful dialogue about how to refine their investments. Ultimately, the Teacher Incentive Fund guidelines linked pay incentives with capacity-building opportunities for teachers—things like professional development and professional learning communities—so that the push to get better was matched by resources to make improvement more likely.
While we did not have education sector-specific research to support that pairing, it proved a critical piece of the merit pay design puzzle. In 2020, for example, I worked with a pair of colleagues on a meta-analysis of the merit pay literature. We synthesized effect sizes across 37 primary studies, 26 of which were conducted in the United States, finding that the merit pay effect is nearly twice as large when paired with professional development. This is by no means the definitive word, but it’s a significant contribution in the incremental advancement of scientific knowledge about American education. It is putting another piece of the puzzle together and moving the education system forward with ways to improve student opportunity and learning.
That’s the spirit IES encourages—open experimentation, modesty in drawing conclusions, and an eagerness to gather more data. Most importantly, we wanted our findings to spark conversation not just among academic researchers but among educators and policymakers, the people ultimately responsible for designing policy and implementing it in America’s classrooms.
Pushing that public conversation in a productive direction is always challenging. Ideological assumptions are powerful, interest groups are vocal, and even the most nuanced research findings can get flattened in the media retelling. We struggled with all of that in the aftermath of the POINT study, which arrived at a moment of increased federal interest in merit pay and other incentive programs. Fortunately, the Obama administration listened to rigorous research findings and learned from the research funding arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
This is why the staying power of IES matters. The debates around education policy aren’t going away, and the need for stronger empirical grounding grows alongside the value of education and public investment. The POINT experiment didn’t settle the debate over merit pay, but we did complicate it in productive ways that yielded another critically important finding nearly eight years later. That’s a victory for education science, and a mark of progress for education policy.
Matthew G. Springer is the Robena and Walter E. Hussman, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Education Reform at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education.
This blog was produced by Allen Ruby (Allen.Ruby@ed.gov), Associate Commissioner for Policy and Systems Division, NCER.