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Study finds merit in teacher performance pay

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Paying teachers based on their performance in the classroom has resulted in better student test scores, a recent study has found.

The study, released Jan. 22 by researchers at the University of Arkansas, examined a merit pay program called the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project that was implemented in five schools in Little Rock. Under the ACPP, teachers could earn as much as an $11,000 bonus based on how much their students' test scores improved.

"Our two years of analysis of test data in ACPP schools in Little Rock reveal consistent findings: Students of teachers who are eligible for performance bonuses enjoy academic benefits. Further, many of the criticisms of merit pay programs simply have not proven true in Little Rock," said Gary W. Ritter, lead researcher and professor of education at the University of Arkansas.

The schools participating in ACPP are composed predominantly of black students from low-income homes.

The study comes as lawmakers are crafting a bill to renew the No Child Left Behind Act, and Republicans and Democrats are considering including performance pay systems for teachers.

The study examined standardized test scores from 2004-2005 through 2006-2007 of the three schools that recently joined the ACPP and of other Little Rock schools. After adjusting for factors such as prior achievement, socioeconomic status, race and gender, it found students in the ACPP schools outperformed their peers in nonparticipating schools by 3.52 normal curve equivalent (NCE) points in math, meaning nearly seven percentile points.

In language, the students in ACPP schools outperformed their peers by 4.56 NCE points, or nearly nine percentile points. In reading, the ACPP students outperformed their peers by 3.29 NCE points, or six percentile points.

There are passionate arguments for and against merit pay, which is one of the most hotly debated issues in public education.

Supporters argue that it encourages teachers to work harder, be more creative with their teaching and be more satisfied in their careers. Teachers unions such as the National Education Association oppose such programs, arguing they cause divisive competitive atmospheres among teachers and encourage teachers to neglect low-performing students.

The study found evidence that contradicted arguments on both sides. According to the teachers Mr. Ritter's team surveyed, the ACPP teachers didn't report being more innovative or working harder. They also didn't report divisive competition, a negative work environment or shying away from low-performing students.

However, teachers who participated in the ACPP program for several years reported being more satisfied with their pay.

The idea of paying teachers based on performance and rewarding more effective teachers has garnered bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, California Democrat, has supported legislation that included such a program, coupled with added support for teachers, including mentors and improved working conditions.

The issue also has spilled over into the presidential race.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has expressed support for it, even though teacher unions, important Democratic allies, oppose the idea. Republican contender Mitt Romney's Web site states that he "will support performance-based pay and other initiatives that encourage our best teachers to teach in our highest-need schools."

Few detailed studies of merit pay have been conducted, so little is known about their impact, Mr. Ritter's study noted. Still, it cited other reports that argue it's difficult to study merit plans long term because many of them don't last. They run up against a lack of funding or strong opposition by teachers unions.

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