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Bonuses Draw Calif. Teachers to Hard-to-Staff Schools

Starting in 2000, California education officials experimented with a different kind of teacher-incentive program. Rather than pay teachers more for boosting students' test scores, the Governor's Teaching Fellowship offered $20,000 bonuses to talented, traditionally licensed teachers who agree to teach for four years in the state's lowest- performing schools. The program got the budget axe in 2002, though, before state educators could determine how it all worked out.

Now, however, a policy brief published by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) takes up where the state left off.
For their study, researchers Jennifer Steele, Richard Murnane, and John Willett use a longitudinal database on a subset of novice California teachers to try to determine whether the fellowship enticed more teachers into hard-to-staff schools, whether the teachers stayed more than a year or two, and if the effort was worth the investment. The database they used comes from the Assumption Program of Loans for Education, a longstanding state program that provides loan forgiveness to beginning teachers who teach in shortage subjects or in rural, low-income, or low-performing schools. Of the thousands of teachers who took part in this program between 1998 and 2003, 725 were also Governor's Fellowship recipients.

The study found that, even among this group, which was already inclined to teach in hard-to-staff schools, fellowship recipients were 28 percent more likely to teach in hard-to-staff schools. (Under the terms of the fellowship program, teachers could exit the program by paying back $5,000 of their award.) In other words, for every seven fellowship recipients who began working in a low-performing school, two would not have done it were it not for the hefty bonus, the study concludes.

Because the data only tracks teachers for four years, it's harder to say how long the teachers ultimately stayed. What the researchers do know is this: Eighty-five percent of the fellowship recipients stayed in low-performing schools more than two years and nearly three-quarters persisted into the fourth year. That's better odds than Teach for America gets for its recruits, 61 percent of whom stay in the teaching profession after fulfilling their two-year commitments, according to the analysis.

"In an effort to increase the number of academically skilled teachers in low-performing schools, spending just under $10,000 for every one-year position staffed by a promising teacher who would have otherwise gone elsewhere does not seem an extraordinarily high price to pay," the study concludes. "Moreover, the longer the GTF recipients remained in underperforming schools beyond their four-year fellowship terms, the lower their recruitment cost per teacher-year would ultimately have been."

The bang-for-the-buck would also be more favorable for the program if researchers could show that fellowship recipients were more effective at their jobs than the teachers they replaced. But, as they say in the field, more research is needed to answer that question.

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