Will recruitment incentives—sometimes known as "combat pay"—lure top-quality teachers to high-poverty schools? If not, what will?
What's the Idea?
States and districts are experimenting with ways to attract top teachers to the schools deemed hardest to staff. Recruitment incentives are designed to entice teachers to work in schools with high concentrations of poor and low-performing students.
These incentives, usually financial, may include signing bonuses, loan forgiveness, tuition reimbursement, and even assistance with relocation and housing costs. A popular complementary approach is to simplify the credentialing process, making it easier and faster for candidates to enter the teaching force if they agree to work in hard-to-staff schools.
What's the Reality?
The poorest schools, urban and rural alike, face perennial challenges in attracting enough well-qualified teachers. Although these schools would benefit the most from a highly skilled and stable teaching force, they tend to have just the opposite. Low-income schools have a higher percentage of new teachers, a lower percentage of certified teachers, and more teachers with weaker education backgrounds than high-income schools do (Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002). Moreover, such schools are often in districts with inefficient, bureaucratic hiring procedures that work against the potential benefits of financial incentives. Late notification to applicants and inattention to matching teachers to appropriate positions in specific schools undermine recruitment efforts.
What's the Research?
Research suggests that monetary incentives have mixed success in attracting teachers to high-poverty schools, and even less success in helping schools retain them. For example, Massachusetts offered prospective teachers a $20,000 signing bonus (spread out over four years as an enticement to stay) coupled with an accelerated path to certification. Researchers followed 13 of the 59 bonus recipients, chosen to represent variety. Although the recipients reported that the bonus had almost no influence on their decision to enter teaching, the fast track to certification
was an inducement. Neither incentive, however, kept them in Massachusetts public schools. Before receiving the full four-year payout, 8 of the 13 had left (Liu, Johnson, & Peske, 2004).
From 2001 through 2004, the state of North Carolina offered an annual bonus of $1,800 to math, science, and special education teachers willing to teach in low-income or low-performing schools. Researchers documented weak implementation of the policy and minimal benefits to teachers and schools. In surveys of the teachers and principals in the schools involved, the study team found that the complexity of the incentive program (for example, the rules determining who was eligible); its late start in the first year; and its short duration (three years) undermined its potential effects. Teachers thought that bonuses could be influential, but they doubted that $1,800 was sufficient (Clotfelter, Glennie, Ladd, & Vigdor, 2008).
In both the Massachusetts and the North Carolina studies, researchers concluded that even when bonuses succeeded in drawing teachers to the poorest schools, such incentives could not compensate for the lack of support they encountered in these schools, which in turn contributed to the departure of many of these teachers.
In fact, retaining good teachers is an even bigger problem than getting them into high-poverty schools in the first place. Such schools have higher turnover rates than other schools, and the teachers who leave them are typically more qualified than those who stay (Guarino, Santibanez, & Daley, 2006). Consequently, policies that focus on recruitment without taking on teacher retention address only a small part of the problem.
Increasingly, researchers are focusing on what makes the difference in whether teachers stay in high-poverty schools. Stockard and Lehman (2004) analyzed national Schools and Staffing Survey data to determine what factors influence new teachers to stay in their jobs. They concluded that the most important reason first-year teachers choose to stay is job satisfaction and that the most important factors in job satisfaction are social support and school management.
Guarino and colleagues' research review (2006) reached similar conclusions. Schools that provided teachers with more autonomy and administrative support had lower teacher turnover. Moreover, schools that provided mentoring and induction programs, particularly those related to collegial support, had lower rates of turnover among beginning teachers.
Johnson, Kardos, Kauffman, Liu, and Donaldson (2004) identified three key sources of support for new teachers: (1) an informative hiring process that helps ensure a good fit between the candidate and the teaching position; (2) assignment of a well-trained and well-matched mentor; and (3) a well-defined, standards-based curriculum that provides teachers with strong guidance but also gives them sufficient flexibility in the classroom. On the basis of two surveys given to more than 600 new teachers in five states across the country, the researchers concluded that new teachers in low-income schools receive much less support in these areas than teachers in higher-wealth schools do. New teachers' decisions to transfer to other schools were primarily related to the amount of support they received.
What's One to Do?
High-poverty schools face multiple disadvantages in attracting and keeping qualified teachers. Creating financial incentives to attract more and better teachers to these schools makes sense. It simply isn't enough, however, given the magnitude and nature of the problems.
School districts can help land strong candidates and match them appropriately with positions in high-poverty schools by making timely job offers and involving schools in hiring decisions. Districts can also help high-poverty schools obtain the resources and assistance needed to support their teachers better. If teachers are not well matched to their teaching assignments and if they lack support from school leaders and colleagues, those teachers who can do so will seek a more congenial setting.
Clotfelter, C. T., Glennie, E. J., Ladd, H. F., & Vigdor, J. L. (2008). Teacher bonuses and teacher retention in low-performing schools: Evidence from the North Carolina $1,800 teacher bonus program.
Public Finance Review, 36(1), 63–87.
Guarino, C., Santibanez, L., & Daley, G. (2006). Teacher recruitment and retention: A review of the recent empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 72(2), 173–208.
Johnson, S. M., Kardos, S. M., Kauffman, D., Liu, E., & Donaldson, M. L. (2004). The support gap: New teachers' early experiences in high-income and low-income schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 12(61). Available: http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v12n61
Lankford, H., Loeb, S., & Wyckoff, J. (2002). Teacher sorting and the plight of urban schools: A descriptive analysis.
Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(1), 37–62.
Liu, E., Johnson, S. M., & Peske, H. G. (2004). New teachers and the Massachusetts signing bonus: The limits of inducement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 26(3), 217–236.
Stockard, J., & Lehman, M. (2004). Influences on the satisfaction and retention of 1st-year teachers: The importance of effective school management. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(5) 742–771.
Jane L. David is Director of the Bay Area Research Group, Palo Alto, California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She is the author, with Larry Cuban, of Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer's Guide to School Reform (Education Week Press, 2006).
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