Merit Pay for Teachers Improves Student Achievement in Arkansas

Published April 1, 2007

Merit pay programs for teachers result in a better work environment for teachers and better test scores for students, according to a study released in mid-January by the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

Five of the Little Rock (Arkansas) School District’s 34 elementary schools have participated in the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project (ACPP), which offers teachers and staff members generous bonuses–up to $11,000 each–based on increases in students’ scores on the math portion of standardized tests. Bonuses totaled about $200,000 per school in the ACPP in 2005-06.

According to the Arkansas researchers, offering bonuses to teachers based on students’ math proficiency resulted in students improving their math scores by 3.6 to 4.6 Normal Curve Equivalency (NCE) ranks in one year. NCE scores show how students rank among other students across the country.

The study evaluated 500 elementary students’ performance and teachers’ feedback about their work environments in those five schools. Of the 132 teachers surveyed, 58 worked in schools offering merit pay programs.

“The Achievement Challenge Pilot Project merit pay system should be considered as one policy option to improve the status quo and compensate teachers, and then be subject to rigorous evaluation to continually test its effectiveness,” said Gary Ritter, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas’s Department of Education Reform, and one of the study’s authors.

Improved Scores

The ACPP began at Meadowcliff Elementary in 2004-05 and added Wakefield Elementary in 2005-06. For the current academic year three more elementary schools–Geyer Springs, Mabelvale, and Romine–joined as well.

Bonuses for Meadowcliff teachers are based on how many students show an increase in NCE points. Their bonuses ranged from $100 for every student who gained up to four NCE points to $400 for each student gaining more than 15 NCE points.

In 2004-05, Meadowcliff students improved from the 18th percentile to the 30th percentile overall, and about $134,000 in bonuses was awarded to teachers and staff that year. In 2005-06, Meadowcliff teachers and staff members earned about $200,000 in bonuses.

Bonuses at the other schools are based on the average growth in NCE points per class. In 2005-06, Wakefield teachers earned about $228,000 in bonuses based on students’ improved test scores.

The ACPP is funded by the Little Rock School District, Public Education Foundation of Little Rock, Walton Family Foundation, Hussman Foundation, and Brown Family Foundation.

Negative Competition?

Some opponents of merit pay programs say they neglect low-performing students and increase negative competition among teachers.

“We think comparisons among teachers creates a situation where teachers can’t cooperate” with each other, said Dan Marzoni, president of the Arkansas Education Association teachers union. Teachers in merit pay programs likely wouldn’t share helpful teaching strategies with each other because they would be competing for bonuses, he claimed.

Marzoni said merit pay programs create a “poor atmosphere” in which parents may compete to get their children placed in a certain classroom with a “chosen” teacher. He also said such programs are unnecessary because “all teachers are qualified to teach” if they have a college degree and are certified by the state, because teachers’ supervisors routinely evaluate them.

Ritter agreed some concerns about negative competition are valid. “Some merit pay opponents might think the teaching profession doesn’t lend itself to [offering] financial rewards” for students’ improving standardized test scores, he said.

However, Ritter said, the study’s findings don’t support Marzoni’s other concerns.

Mixed Feedback

Feedback about the study from Little Rock School District board members has been mixed, according to Ritter.

Finding funds, dealing with opposition, and deciding where to implement merit pay programs are among the challenges school districts may face, Ritter said. The Little Rock School District was able to experiment with merit pay largely because of financial support from private sources outside the school district.

“We hope policymakers will take a look at our findings and be open to the possibility of merit pay as one strategy by which teachers’ salaries could be used as a policy lever to recruit, retain, and reward effective teachers,” Ritter said.

Mary Susan Littlepage ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.

For more information …

“An Evaluation of Teacher Performance Pay in Arkansas,” by Marcus A. Winters, Gary W. Ritter, Joshua H. Barnett, and Jay P. Greene, published in January 2007 by the University of Arkansas, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to and search for document #20771.

“Evaluation of Year One of the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project in the Little Rock Public School District” by Joshua H. Barnett, Gary W. Ritter, Marcus A. Winters, and Jay P. Greene, published in January 2007 by the University of Arkansas, is also available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #20772.