Financial rewards improve teacher attendance, retention and students’ test scores

Performance-based financial rewards improve teacher attendance and retention and students’ test scores, according to a Rice University study of the Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) educator award program known as ASPIRE. Larger bonuses led to even greater improvements, the study found.

The research was conducted by the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

HISD launched the ASPIRE (Accelerating Student Progress: Increasing Results and Expectations) program in the 2006-2007 school year to identify and reward successful teachers and to help recruit and retain the best teachers. The study evaluated award-eligible teachers from HISD’s 279 schools to determine if receiving a monetary reward during the 2009-2010 school year positively influenced teacher outcomes in 2010-2011 (as measured by teacher retention and attendance and improvement in their students’ achievement). Teachers received awards primarily on the basis of value-added scores determined by students’ gains on standardized tests, but also on the basis of school ratings from the Texas Education Agency and student enrollment and performance in key courses. The evaluation largely focused on teachers of core subjects: language arts, math, reading, science and social studies.

The study found that teachers who received financial rewards saw improved performance among their students, particularly on the math Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). The students of math teachers who received an individualized award had improved test scores on the math TAKS equivalent to an additional one-quarter to one-third year of schooling (as based on the Texas Education Agency’s expected improvement benchmarks), relative to students of math teachers who did not receive an individualized award. A smaller advantage in test score gains was evident on the Stanford reading test for the students of reading/English language arts teachers who received an award.

“Overall, we were surprised by the positive effects of the awards because previous research on similar programs has produced mixed results,” said Ruth López Turley, Rice associate professor of sociology and director of HERC.” Because the better outcomes of teachers who received awards were evident even in comparisons between teachers who were ranked similarly in earlier years of the award program, our findings suggest that there is something about receiving an award that improves student gains, teacher attendance and retention.”

The research also found that award-receiving teachers have a 20 percent improvement in attendance (approximately two days) and are about two times more likely to remain a teacher in HISD than otherwise similar teachers who did not receive awards. As with test scores, attendance among award-receiving teachers improved more with larger awards, both in terms of raw amounts and as a proportion of base salaries.

Turley noted exceptions to the findings. The attendance of science teachers was less improved by receipt of an award than that of other core teachers. In terms of their students’ gains on tests and retention, special education teachers generally benefited less than other core teachers from receiving an award. In contrast, secondary-level math teachers who received an award experienced more improvement in their likelihood of continuing to teach in HISD and in their attendance rates than did other core teachers who received an award.

Other findings:

  • Teachers who received a larger award were more likely to continue teaching in HISD than teachers who received a smaller award. The predicted probability of continuing to teach in HISD was 92 percent for teachers who received the maximum award, compared with 82 percent for otherwise similar teachers who received awards of lower amounts.
  • The larger the award, the greater the average gains in teachers’ students’ scores on the math TAKS and Stanford reading test.
  • Among teachers who received awards, the retention and student test-score gains of teachers at higher-need schools improved less than those of teachers at lower-need schools. This suggests the program may be less effective for teachers at higher-need schools. The researchers classified 35 percent of HISD’s core teachers as working in higher-need schools than the other 65 percent of HISD’s core teachers. Because students’ test scores, teacher attendance rates and teacher retention rates were the lowest in HISD schools with higher proportions of students in poverty, black students, students in English as a Second Language programs and students in special education, schools with the highest prevalence of such students were classified as “higher-need.”

Turley said she hopes the findings will inform HISD policy decisions and contribute to the body of research on educator award programs.

“I hope the report will help HISD continue to improve the program – and as a result, help their students – by focusing on the parts of the program that are most effective and eliminating those that are not,”

Turley said. “Ultimately, the program is just one piece of the puzzle in increasing student gains.”

The study’s authors were Dara Shifrer, postdoctoral fellow at HERC; Holly Heard, senior research analyst at HERC; and Turley. HERC is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The report is available online at http://kinder.rice.edu/herc.

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.