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Is Money Enough to Keep More High-Quality Teachers in High-Need Schools?

Money can incent highly effective teachers to move to—and stay in—high-need schools, and those teachers are able to positively impact student learning in the elementary schools they transfer to. These are the highlights of a final report released yesterday on the U.S. Department of Education’s “Talent Transfer Initiative,” a multi-year, random-assignment research study that was conducted by Mathematica. But a deeper look at the findings underscores that using financial incentives as the sole, or even the primary, way to encourage more of our strongest teachers to work in our high-need schools is not going to be sufficient to close the teacher talent gap—and with it the student achievement gap—that exists in our nation.

Much research has documented the impact that teachers can have on student learning, but the schools whose students are furthest behind often struggle to attract and retain high-quality teachers. The Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI) was developed to see whether financial incentives could encourage some of a district’s highest-performing teachers to move to and stay in selected low-performing schools in that district for at least two years—and if so, whether their students’ achievement would increase.

In 2009-10, TTI was implemented in seven large, economically-diverse districts where there weren’t other substantial financial incentive programs in place. Three other districts joined TTI in 2010-11. The TTI intervention recruited teachers with high value-added (a measure of a teacher’s impact on student learning growth) in each district to apply to transfer to a lower-performing district school in exchange for a large financial incentive: $20,000 paid over two years. (Teachers who would have been eligible for TTI but were already working in one of the selected low-performing schools received $10,000 over two years.) Grade and subject teams in selected low-performing schools were assigned to a “treatment” or a “control” group – the TTI teams had the option to hire a TTI teacher, while the control teams hired teachers through their regular process. Mathematica tracked transferring TTI and control group teachers, as well as their school-team colleagues, over a three year period.

On the positive side, the study found that:

  • The prospect of a $20,000 transfer incentive encouraged 81 high-performing teachers to transfer to selected low-performing schools in their district, filling 88% of total vacancies.
  • After the first year, TTI teachers were retained in their transfer schools at significantly higher rates than their control group counterparts who were not receiving financial incentives: 93% vs. 70%.
  • TTI teachers who transferred to elementary schools were successful in raising the achievement of students in the new setting. At the end of the two year initiative, their students’ achievement had increased roughly 15 percentile points, on average, on state assessments in both math and reading (assuming starting achievement at the 40th percentile in their state).
  • The year TTI incentive payments ended, a majority of TTI and control teachers were still teaching in the same school: 60% and 51%, respectively.
However, the TTI also finds that such financial incentives are not a clear slam dunk because:
  • Even with intensive, targeted recruitment efforts, only 22% of teachers offered the incentive applied for it, and 12% of open positions on the treatment teams went unfilled by a TTI teacher.
  • TTI teachers who transferred to middle schools had no impact on their students’ achievement.
  • The vast majority of teachers working in TTI teacher teams were non-TTI teachers, and their students’ achievement did not rise.
  • Forty percent of TTI teachers left their schools once the incentive payments ended, and we have no data on whether they would have remained had the incentives continued.
Using financial incentives as the sole, or even the primary, way to encourage more of our strongest teachers to work in our high-need schools is not going to be sufficient to close the teacher talent gap.

We don’t know how much these outcomes were affected by school- or district-context—while the number of teachers studied in each district was small, elementary results did vary by district, and two of the districts only had middle schools participating. And because we don’t know which districts and schools had the most and least success with TTI, we can’t investigate which factors may have supported or obstructed more positive outcomes.

What we do know is that there’s plenty of evidence on why high-performing teachers are reluctant to teach in or remain in high-need schools – and, for most of them, it’s not primarily the money, as. And it’s also not the students – a finding the TTI report supports, as TTI teachers were actually less likely to report challenges with teaching low-performing or disadvantaged students or dealing with student discipline problems than control group teachers or other teachers in their school were.

No, it’s the working conditions that are first and foremost for the majority of teachers—areas such as the level of staff cohesion and collaboration, availability of teacher leadership opportunities, and the quality of school leadership.

Staff cohesion is one area where TTI teachers did cite larger challenges than their control-group and school-team peers: both on gaining support from fellow teachers and on feeling like an outsider, even though teachers’ TTI status was not public. These feelings were likely exacerbated by the fact that most TTI teachers transferred into their new schools by themselves.

Not being recognized or rewarded for their contributions is another reason highly effective teachers become dissatisfied and leave their school  or teaching altogether–particularly interesting, given the TTI study finding  that TTI teachers were half as likely to serve as grade-level or subject-area chairs as their colleagues, and only two-thirds as likely to serve on a school-improvement committee.

The TTI study did not examine the quality of school leadership, which has been shown to be highly correlated with teachers’ employment decisions. While teachers were surveyed about how challenging “gaining support of the principal/administration” was, they were not asked how satisfied they were with the level and quality of support provided by school leaders.

Using financial incentives to try to solve the problem of inequitable student access to strong teachers may seem like an easier undertaking than trying to address some of its deeper root causes. And clearly, research like the TTI shows that financial incentives should have a place in rewarding teachers for taking on more difficult work or more responsibilities. But it’s time for policymakers to focus on the main issues keeping many of our strongest teachers from making their careers in high-need schools.

Several districts have already adopted initiatives that encourage multiple highly-effective teachers to transfer into high-need schools as a team and/or take on teacher leadership roles (e.g.,  Boston Public Schools’ partnership with Teach Plus’ T3 initiative). Others, such as Fresno Unified School District, have implemented strong principal preparation and development programs. Leading districts like these can provide insight for how to build a stronger system for attracting and retaining talent in our highest priority schools and improve student outcomes, especially for those students who have historically been left behind by our education system."