Do Financial Incentives to “Redistribute” Teachers Work?

By Jane Coggshall Jun 29, 2017

One way to get high-performing teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools, many believe and some are doing, is to offer them recruitment and retention incentives. But is this approach affordable? And what happens to the students in the schools that the most effective teachers leave? And are teachers really interchangeable?  

First, consider the cost. Teachers in the main don’t like to change schools, for all kinds of reasons. They may have invested in a school community and feel a strong sense of loyalty. Their commute may be a cakewalk. They might prefer to deal with the devil they know.

In fact, researchers from Mathematica Policy Research who tried to pay high valued-added teachers $20,000 extra to move to an underperforming school in the same district and stay there for two years found it tough sledding. They had to approach 22 eligible and initially interested teachers (through information sessions and follow-up emails, phone calls, and letters) for every vacancy ultimately filled. In the study’s first two years, 10 percent of the open positions went begging.

The study’s final report will reveal whether those highly effective teachers stayed as effective in their new, more challenging schools. While awaiting those findings—due before October—why not ask whether simply moving individual teachers around is the best policy response to inequitable distribution, given the high cost of recruitment?

It’s also worth considering whether “distribution” is really the right nit to pick. Does this term encourage policymakers to think about the lack of access to high-quality instruction among low-income students, students of color, rural students, students with disabilities, and English language learners as a problem of rearranging the widgets? Or is it alternatively a failure of the system to produce enough great teachers to go around, and therefore we need to fix the system using something more comprehensive than financial incentive band-aids?

We at the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center), continuing the work of the former National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, contend that inequitable access requires a systemic response. As you’ve heard from us before and will hear from us again, we need to grow more great teachers in and for the schools and districts that need them the most AND we need to innovate to extend the reach of high performing teachers to disadvantaged students using teams, differentiated staffing approaches, teacher leadership, and technology.

We’ll explore these approaches in future posts, but where do you think states should start?

If financial incentives are part of the answer, how best should they be used to support equitable access? And how do you build a comprehensive system of support while avoiding the siren call of a laundry list of tactics?