Teacher merit-pay creates controversy
BY ROSALIND ROSSI Sun-Times Media August 25, 2012 11:54PM
Chicago Heights District 170 office, 30 W. 16th Street Friday, August 24, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: September 27, 2012 11:38AM
What happens to student achievement if you start the school year by offering teachers end-of-year bonuses for improved student test scores? Not much.
But give teachers cash upfront on the condition they will lose it if test scores don’t show gains? Lots of improvement.
That’s what researchers say a study of 150 Chicago Heights teachers found in what some are touting as the first U.S. field experiment to indicate that merit pay for teachers can work — if timed properly.
For one school year, the research project by economists from the University of Chicago and Harvard University, including the author of the best-seller Freakonomics , turned nine elementary schools in Chicago Heights School District 170 into a teacher testing ground for a behavioral phenomenon called “loss aversion.’’
“It’s a deeply ingrained behavioral trait — that all human beings have — this underlying phenomenon that ‘I really, really dislike losses, and I will do all I can to avoid losing something,’” said one author, John List, chairman of the U of C’s department of economics.
Chicago Heights teachers given $4,000 upfront on the condition they could lose it — or double it with the right results — produced 2½ to 3½ times the gains in student math scores as teachers offered up to $8,000 in end-of-year bonuses, the study found. Similar findings were not observed in reading, where researchers encountered more technical glitches.
List conceded that his sample of about 150 teachers did not establish an “overarching truth” but “I think there needs to be more studies to see how robust my results are. I’d love for all of Chicago Public Schools to replicate my results. That would be great.’’
The study emerges amid growing national interest in teacher merit pay and other incentives tied to improved student performance. Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Teachers Union officials are battling over those topics in contract talks, with the CTU staunchly opposed to merit pay.
Meanwhile, in District 170, controversy has arisen over the study. The teachers’ union contends that Supt. Tom Amadio told them the district would not be identified, said a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
District 170 union leaders and members are “unhappy” and feel “somewhat misled,’’ IFT spokesman Dave Comerford said, adding that the teachers have concerns about the tests that were used and how the study was conducted.
Amadio said he initially saw the study as a “hot potato’’ and “stayed out of it,’’ but “now the results are out and it’s obviously going to become a subject of discussion.’’
The union brought the offer of the $1 million research project to District 170 teachers and 150 of 160 voluntarily agreed to participate, List said. Teachers were divided into roughly three groups of 50 in the fall of 2010, with one given money upfront, a second promised end-of-the-year bonuses and a third “control” group that received nothing extra.
One District 170 teacher said some teachers did not realize that economists, rather than education professors, were conducting the study, which “has caused a lot of ill feelings in our building.’’