Performance Bonuses for Educators Led to Small Improvements in Student Achievement

Performance Bonuses for Educators Led to Small Improvements in Student Achievement

Educators' Understanding of Bonus Program Improved, But Challenges Remain
Sep 24, 2015

New findings from Mathematica Policy Research show that a federal program providing bonuses to educators based on their performance had a small, positive impact on student achievement. In the first report to describe the effects of pay-for-performance bonuses within the Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) program on student achievement, researchers found that student scores on standardized reading tests rose by 1 percentile point—the equivalent of about three weeks of additional learning. The study also showed similarly positive, but statistically insignificant, improvements in math.

Established by Congress in 2006, TIF aims to boost student achievement in high-needs schools. TIF grants are intended to help those schools attract and keep high-performing educators by supporting comprehensive, performance-based compensation systems, which include bonuses for high-performing educators. Mathematica is conducting a seven-year evaluation of the TIF program for the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences. The new report primarily focuses on 10 districts in seven states that had implemented a TIF program for two years.

Besides small, positive impacts on student reading achievement, other key findings include:

  • Most teachers (over 60 percent) received a bonus, suggesting that bonuses were not challenging to earn. Although the average bonus was about $1,800, the highest-performing teachers received much larger bonuses—more than three times the average bonus.
  • Educators' understanding of the program improved, but challenges remain. In the program’s second year, more teachers understood their eligibility for bonuses and how they were being evaluated than in the first year. Yet more than one-third of teachers still did not realize they were eligible for a bonus. And teachers continued to underestimate the potential size of the bonuses, believing that the largest bonuses were only about two-fifths the size of the actual maximum bonuses awarded.

Alison Wellington, the study's project director, said, "We will continue to follow these districts through the remaining two years of their TIF grant and see if teachers' understanding of their districts' performance-bonus program improves. We'll also look at whether offering performance bonuses continues to improve student achievement."

Read the study snapshot, executive summary, and full report.

Future reports, expected for release in fall 2016 and fall 2017, will determine if teachers' awareness of the program improves and if the impacts on student achievement increase in magnitude.