Promoting Access and Equity: Changing the Discussion on Incentives (Reader Response)

By Daniel J. Quinn, Teacher, Doctoral Student, and Executive Director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice Sep 10, 2013

Equitable access to high-quality teachers is an important goal, but how do we ensure that all students in all schools have the same chance at getting those high-quality teachers? Recent Center on Great Teachers and Leaders for all Learners blogs by Jane Coggshall and John Papay offer promising dialogue on staffing issues in high-poverty and hard-to-staff schools

Coggshall’s blog references a Mathematica Policy Research study of an effort to pay high-performing teachers to move to underperforming schools within the same district. In anticipation of the final results, Coggshall offers several challenging questions regarding the use of incentives to promote equitable access to highly effective teachers for all students. The questions are particularly relevant, given the highly politicized debate over teacher pay.

As a teacher, I have seen firsthand how policymakers and school officials struggle to tap into what truly motivates teachers. The good news is that research on working conditions and school organizational issues provides clues to conditions that keep more teachers in the classroom, which is especially important in hard-to-staff schools. Such research, including Richard Ingersoll’s study on teacher turnover, shows that working conditions are a significant barrier to creating an equitable distribution of high-quality teachers in schools.

We may be able to create systems that entice teachers into hard-to-staff schools, but it will be increasingly difficult to keep those teachers in the classroom unless we identify and address the causes of teacher burnout and turnover. If we are unable to keep teachers in the classroom, we will be faced with a constant churn of new and inexperienced teachers, amplified in hard-to-staff schools. With as many as half of all teachers leaving the profession in the first five years and fast-track teacher preparation programs threatening to deprofessionalize teaching, we must come up with ways to keep more teachers in the classroom.

To better understand how we recruit and retain the next generation of teachers, Ingersoll’s data on issues contributing to teacher turnover (i.e., poor support from administrators, lack of teacher influence over decision making, and student discipline problems) provide a path toward alleviating common school-level issues for attrition. Understandably, these factors often are compounded in hard-to-staff schools with high rates of poverty rates, which makes it even more important to focus on working conditions and job satisfaction for the next generation of teachers.

A 2012 brief by Barnett Berry and Jonathan Eckert proposes that policymakers should focus on conditions that promote effective teaching and retain teachers. The authors investigated other forms of rewards besides traditional pay-for-performance systems, focusing on areas that foster equity and opportunities for success. The brief suggests several factors that are important in creating conditions necessary to promote effective teaching: principals who cultivate and embrace teacher leadership, time and tools for teachers to learn from one another, and teaching loads that take into account the diversity of students. Similarly, John Papay’s recent blog post builds on the concept that supportive working environments improve both teacher retention and teacher development. He highlights recent studies that show the importance of supportive evaluator feedback and peer support.

From my own experiences in the classroom, I know that working conditions and school climate play important roles in keeping teachers in the classroom, and I believe that these aspects are more important than monetary incentives. Unfortunately, policy proposals seeking to create complicated incentive schemes do not take into account the factors that motivate teachers (see Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink), focusing instead on unproven and unreliable pay systems that divert important resources away from supporting our teachers.

I personally have benefited from good working conditions with supportive administrators who provide teacher leadership and initiative. However, many of my colleagues in the most hard-to-staff schools are forced to teach to narrow curricula from pacing guides and are offered little mentoring and professional development to improve their practice. In addition, the most inexperienced teachers often get the most difficult students and the most challenging caseloads, further driving young teachers from the profession.

Encouraging equitable access to high-quality teachers should be about more than money; rather, schools should create opportunities where the most effective teachers take on the most difficult classes. Simply stated, incentives should be aimed at promoting conditions that allow teachers to be successful, supporting and mentoring teachers, and encouraging more students to enter into the teaching profession.

It is imperative that we refocus our resources and begin working with districts to provide leadership training to support teaching conditions that promote effective teaching and learning. Improving the basic working conditions and support structures for teachers will help strengthen teaching as a profession and ensure that the next generation of teachers stays in that profession.          

If we can harness the qualities of effective teachers and promote conditions that allow teachers to be successful, we can support new teachers (keeping them in the classroom) and at the same time raise student achievement. Equitable access to high-quality teachers depends on keeping more teachers in the profession.

Now it’s your turn. We want to hear your thoughts.

How can we promote teaching as a profession to ensure that more high-quality teachers stay in the profession?


Daniel J. Quinn is executive director of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice; a teacher at Grosse Pointe North High School, Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan; and a doctoral student at Oakland University. He also is a 2013 Phi Delta Kappa Emerging Leader. He can be reached at


Dan this is a great post and an important topic. My teaching experience was at Fitzgerald HS (corner of 9 and Ryan)- a far different experience than my Principalship at Rochester HS. In many cases Principals in "hard to staff schools" are forced to spend the majority of their time managing situations- making it difficult to be visible and engaged w/teaching and learning. They too experience burn out and look to move once they are established.
We need to find ways to better support schools that need it most (both teachers and administrators).

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