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NEA responds to merit pay study 

The National Education Association issued a preliminary response Monday, Jan. 22, to a review of the beginning of a merit pay experiment for teachers in Little Rock elementary schools.

The NEA response, reprinted verbatim below, questions the impartiality of a study financed by the same organization financing the pay experiment. It also notes the limited scope of the review, the absence of some underlying data on which the University of Arkansas's conclusions were based and suggested that a press release on the report hyped the more limited findings of the researchers themselves.

The NEA response:

Synopsis and Review

“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

The Study

This is the first installment of a multi-year study of elementary schools in the Little Rock School District that are participating in the Achievement Challenge Pilot Project (ACPP), a merit pay program. ACPP pays classroom teachers and school employees cash bonuses based on gains made by students on norm-referenced test scores for math, reading and language. The project started with funding from the Public Education Foundation of Little Rock (the Walton Family Foundation is among its donors), which continues as its major source of support. According to sources at the Arkansas Education Association, this study has the same financial backer, which raises the concern of how credible it is for the same entity that underwrites the merit pay program to be responsible for evaluating its effectiveness. Surely, an evaluation of the program could benefit from an independent analysis.

The ACPP program currently operates in five of Little Rock’s 34 elementary schools, with three of the schools beginning in 2006-07. The five schools all have high percentages of minority students and students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, as well as low academic achievement. This study encompasses two ACPP schools, one which started in 2004-05 and one that started in 2005-06. Three “comparison schools” were also included in the study.

The authors undertook two analyses:

1) a statistical analysis (fixed effects model) of changes in norm-referenced test scores for fourth and fifth graders. Due to “data limitations”, only math scores were used and only one of the two ACPP schools (along with all three comparison schools) was included in the study.
2) A survey of teachers, asking them about behaviors and attitudes related that the authors considered related to merit pay. Teachers in the two ACPP schools and three comparison schools were surveyed.

The Study’s Findings

The authors contend that:

1. Their statistical model (a “fixed-effects” model) estimated that “schools where the ACPP operated in 2005-06 showed an improvement of 3.5 normal curve equivalent points. For the average student, this gain represents an improvement of nearly 7 percentile points.”

2. The comparison of teacher surveys in the ACPP vs. non-ACPP schools suggested that that they:
- were no more innovative than comparison teachers.
- were no more likely to work harder than comparison teachers.
- were more satisfied with their salaries than comparison teachers.
- reported no more counterproductive competition than comparison teachers.
- their work environment became more positive than comparison teachers.
- were less likely than comparison teachers to agree that low-performing students were a “burden” in the classroom.
- were more likely than comparison students to report that the academic performance of their students had improved over the past year.

Overall, the authors concluded that “while the results from this first year study suggest positive impacts of the ACPP, we believe the second year study with five schools involved in the ACPP will greatly assist in expanding on and explaining the first year findings.”

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