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The Best Teachers Money Might Not Buy

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By Emma Cartwright

This post was originally published on the TNTP Blog.

If you incentivize it, they will come…right? That’s the gist of a recent federal research project called the Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI), which offered high-performing teachers in 10 districts cash awards to remain working in, or transfer to, struggling schools in town. The amounts were significant: $10,000 a year for up to two years to transfer, and $5,000 a year to stay put. More than a thought experiment, the TTI program was designed to measure how financial incentives would influence real high-performing teachers’ workplace choices, and whether those teachers would boost student outcomes in challenging school environments. 

TTI was federally funded, and the evaluation was designed by Mathematica. TNTP was brought in to help local districts recruit eligible teachers and support the transfer processes, so we were especially interested in the results. Mathematica found they were mixed, on both questions. I see two headlines:

Financial incentives can attract high-performing teachers to low-performing schools—but only some of the time. It’s clear that even significant amounts may not be enough to entice effective teachers to move—which should concern districts experimenting with smaller bonuses. And it’s also clear that other factors, especially school culture, matter more. 

As we were working on the program, we kept wondering: Why won’t teachers move? This is a lot of money. Many high-performing teachers wouldn’t even apply. When we asked them why, they told us overwhelmingly that they liked where they were. Our research has found that teachers are far more likely to stay at schools with strong instructional cultures, where expectations are high, clearly articulated and widely shared and where teachers receive consistent feedback and have opportunities to improve. Investing resources into improving school culture may be a powerful way to shift or retain talent, in lieu of or alongside bonuses. 

In the TTI study, just 5 percent of eligible teachers took the bonus in exchange for transferring schools. But then, 60 percent of those who did move stayed beyond the two-year commitment period and continued teaching at their new schools after the bonuses ended. Something else emerged as an incentive to stay, whether it was stability, a renewed sense of challenge or fit with a new school culture. 

The high-performing teachers who transferred to low-performing schools helped students learn more—at the elementary level. While the results varied by district, students showed strong growth in math and reading at the elementary level when they were in the classroom of a high-performing teacher. But in middle schools, researchers found there was no significant impact. It’s hard to know exactly why there was movement in elementary grades but not in middle school—it could be due to the relatively small sample size, or a sign that this kind of intervention is more effective at the elementary level. Clearly, this approach is not a silver bullet for addressing the unequal distribution of effective teachers in low-performing schools. 

Getting the right teachers in place and building school cultures that allow for sustained improvement is complicated, and it’s clear that compensation does not exist in a vacuum. Recognition of excellence matters, as we found in The Irreplaceables. And teachers are also motivated by the existence of a true career path, opportunities to grow and develop while retaining close ties to the classroom. Houston Independent School District is currently piloting a career pathways program that creates opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles without giving up classroom instruction. And the Turnaround Teacher Teams (T3) Initiative, designed by Boston teachers, has shown that large cohorts of highly effective teachers within a school, defined roles for teacher leadership and administrators who are committed to models of shared leadership are all key factors in bringing high-performing teachers to low-performing schools and empowering them to improve student outcomes—alongside increased compensation. 

As when professionals in other fields choose to move workplaces, particularly to more challenging environments, compensation matters. But it’s not the only thing that matters.

Emma Cartwright is Partner, Strategy, Systems & Policy at TNTP.