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Top Teachers Retained Effectiveness After Transfer, Study Shows

Top elementary teachers who transferred to low-performing schools under a bonus program boosted their students' learning significantly, according to a federally financed experiment whose results were unveiled yesterday.

There's only one catch: Getting teachers to agree to go in the first place. 

A seven-year effort in the making, the Talent Transfer Initiative offered effective elementary and middle school teachers in 10 different school systems the opportunity to switch to a low-performing school in their same district. The top 20 percent of teachers in each district were identified using each district's own "value added" measure.  They were offered a $20,000 bonus to switch, paid out over a two-year period. (Effective teachers already in those schools got $10,000). 

To test the effects of the transfer, researchers assigned teams of grade and subject-level teachers to a treatment group, which got to hire one of the TTI teachers, or a control group, which filled their vacancy through normal channels. Then, the researchers compared how students of the TTI teachers and their teams did academically with those taught by the control teachers and their teams.

The findings carry many implications to this study for policymakers, and I'll run through them for you.

  • Statistically significant gains showed up for teachers taught by the elementary TTI teachers. They showed up as early as one year in, although they were larger after two years. 
  • There were no gains for middle school TTI teachers.
  • Researchers identified more than 1,500 eligible teachers to participate, but only about 80 ultimately made the transfer.
  • Debates abound about whether teacher effectiveness is context-specific or whether it's transferable. This study clearly supports the latter supposition. And it isn't the first one to do so; a separate study issued last year had similar findings.
  • The transferring teachers were more likely to stay in their receiving schools during the two-year period in which the bonuses were paid out. After that, they were neither more nor less likely to stay. 
  • Regardint the concept of "equitable teacher distribution," or making sure that low-income students have equal access to quality teaching, this study is a bit of a mixed bag. As the study findings highlight, it is still a hard sell, even with large financial rewards, to get teachers to transfer to schools most in need.
  • While the study doesn't detail what those challenges are, they're not hard to guess: Working conditions, leadership, and supportive peers—basically all the things that teachers report as lacking in challenging schools. 

The study was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research.

Here's a link to Education Week's full write-up of the results

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