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Teacher incentives: Another if-only that doesn't measure up

March 7, 2012 |  2:12 pm

Public school
When it comes to raising achievement in public schools, theories abound. Not just theories. Absolute certitude. If only schools were smaller, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation used to think, before it pushed for and got such schools throughout the nation, and then its own studies found otherwise. If only we made all students take college-prep courses, others maintain, or if we linked teacher evaluations to their students' scores.

One of the more popular if-onlys, because it certainly makes sense, has been that if only we provided teachers with incentives, teachers would be more likely to stay at their schools and scores would rise. Not just extra pay for performance, but with more training, intensive mentoring and career paths that allow them to be promoted without becoming an administrator.

Chicago was among many school districts to try that out with its TAP program (Teacher Advancement Program), which it piloted in several schools. Now, a gold-standard study by the think tank Mathematica Policy Research finds that in its first four years, TAP did nothing for student achievement. It had a modest though inconsistent effect on teacher retention: 67% stayed for three years, as opposed to the 56% in schools without such a program.

This doesn't necessarily mean that teacher incentives can't work. The pay incentives for performance were not very large in the Chicago schools, averaging a little more than $1,000. Maybe the program just needs more time to show its stuff. Or maybe it needs some tweaking. At this point, though, it's just another silver-bullet theory that was far from hitting the mark.


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Photo: Javier Castillo, then a junior at Francis Polytechnic Senior High, attends an AP class. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times / May 18, 2011

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