Idaho Teacher Pay For Performance: Research Vs. Experience

Nov 5, 2012


Tuesday Idahoan’s will vote on propositions 1, 2, and 3. Those ask if the state should keep the controversial education laws known as Students Come First. The laws limit collective bargaining rights and seek to increase technology use in schools. One of the laws also creates a pay for performance plan where teachers can earn bonuses. Now that law has drawn criticism from an unexpected source.

The nonprofit Idaho Kids Count collects data and reviews research on issues related to child wellbeing. It then uses the information to advise policy makers. But until now it’s never stepped into such a politically charged discussion.

“Our job is to bring the best evidence available to policy discussions that effect children, even if the topic or research results are controversial,” says Lauren Necochea director of Idaho Kids Count.

Necochea recently did a review of pay for performance studies. She concludes it has never been shown scientifically to increase student performance. Idaho’s Department of Education responded to the Kids Count brief saying there is research to support merit pay. You can see some of it on the department’s website. But the main counter throughout the repeal fight has been: it works in the New Plymouth school district.

“It’s kind of like a whole bunch of people told me that this restaurant isn’t very good and I went there and the food was good. Our personal experience kind of outweighs what people have said,” says Ryan Kerby, New Plymouth’s superintendent.

Kerby and his teachers started a pay for performance system ten years ago. The district saw dramatic improvement in test scores soon after. But Kerby says it’s impossible to say how much of that was due to the bonuses and how much was from other changes made at the same time, like organizing teachers into small cooperative groups. Still, Kerby is a big supporter of the state’s new merit pay system. He thinks it will work if done correctly. First he says, teachers have to have buy-in. He also thinks money should go to small groups rather than individuals or whole schools, and he says you can’t think of it as a bonus.

“You’re not trying to get teachers to work harder. They’re already working their fingers to the bone,” he says. “What this is, is a thank you for teachers who go outside, find new ideas, new instructional strategies.”

The New Plymouth system does get a mention in pay for performance research. Last year a group of public policy students from Stanford University mentioned the district in a paper. It says while most studies of pay for performance in the U.S. show little success, it appears to be quite successful in a district in Idaho. But the authors don’t include New Plymouth in their study because they note, it has never been examined scientifically.