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Does High Teacher Pay = High Achievement? A Study Says No!

Does High Teacher Pay = High Achievement? A Study Says No!

Share A new, in-depth report takes a look at how states spend education money and finds that the most cost-effective ways of increasing student achievement are by reducing pupil-teacher ratios, providing more prekindergarten programs, and providing teachers with discretionary classroom resources -- not by raising teacher pay.

For states that want more bang for their education buck, a recently released report advises, raising teachers' salaries generally isn't the most cost-effective way of raising student achievement. The authors speculate that the traditional compensation system rewards both high- and low-quality teachers.

According to the study, spending money on lowering pupil-teacher ratios in the lower grades, providing widely available prekindergarten programs, and providing teachers with discretionary resources for the classroom are better uses of education dollars, particularly in states with disproportionately high numbers of minority and disadvantaged children.

The 271-page study, Improving Student Achievement: What NAEP Test Scores Tell Us, based its findings on U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests given between 1990 and 1996.


"When we started our study, there was uncertainty whether education reform was actually working," said David Grissmer, lead researcher of the study and senior management scientist at RAND. RAND, a nonprofit institution headquartered in Santa Monica, California, conducts research and analysis to help improve public policy. "The main message of the report is that public education is reformable and reform efforts have made a difference. We looked at the education investment: Does teacher salary and experience make a difference, especially for disadvantaged students?"

U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley said the report highlights the areas the Clinton administration has focused on to improve education. "The factors that this report point out as making a difference in higher achievement scores -- smaller class sizes, early childhood education, and improved teaching resources -- are the priorities that this administration and the U.S. Department of Education have been emphasizing for the past eight years," Riley said in a written statement.


Grissmer and his colleagues found that it's not where the kids live in a state that puts them at a disadvantage but which state the children live in. Grissmer, Ann Flanagan, Jennifer Kawata, and Stephanie Williamson examined the test results of 2,500 fourth- and eighth-grade students from 44 states.

More federal funding is needed, Grissmer told Education World. "Some states are limited in what they can spend. Certainly our study would support the expansion of Title I spending," he said. "This is a federal problem." Title I is a federally funded program that provides additional funds to schools with low-income students.

States with the highest student math scores -- North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, and Maryland -- posted gains nearly twice the national average. High-performing states were compared with low-performing states that were demographically similar.

For example, Texas and California are close demographically but had very different test results. Texas outscored California in reading and math by 11 percentage points. The report attributes lower pupil-teacher ratios, more prekindergarten, and better teaching resources as the primary reasons Texas students performed so much better than California students did. The researchers also found that teacher turnover in California probably had a significant effect on student achievement.

State policies involving standards, assessment, and accountability implemented during the late 1980s and early 1990s also made a difference. Students in both Texas and North Carolina showed significant improvement in math, the researchers wrote. The researchers warn policymakers not to take credit for the gains or put blame on current policymakers in states that did not post gains. Achievement results reflect policies and practices from the early 1980s through 1995, they wrote.

The researchers also advise that the full effects of reform policies take a long time to be realized and may not be reflected even in these scores. They point out that education researchers and development specialists have not tested policies and practices that could guide policymakers and educators toward more effective practices.

Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agrees with the report that Texas is reaping the benefits of investments made many years ago. "We know what works, and we know good schools don't come on the cheap," Feldman said in a written statement.

"California, which fared poorly in the report, is an example of what happens when you take away investment from public schools," Feldman added. "California's public schools once were a source of great pride -- before they were starved of resources. Today, the state is finally investing again in sensible, targeted reforms, such as reducing class size in the early grades, and the schools are improving."

The RAND report advises that policymakers need more research in order to make sound decisions about improving student achievement. "Without a critical mass of high-quality research, policymakers lack the key process required to improve education systematically," the report stated. "Without good research and development, progress in education or any other area will be slow, uncertain, and inefficient."

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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