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Why the Best Teachers Don't Transfer

Reformers assert that what works in the private sector will also work in education.  But if that's the case, how do they explain the results of a study by Mathematica Policy Research?  Only five percent of the top elementary teachers in 114 schools in 10 districts across seven states were willing to transfer to underperforming schools, despite being offered $20,000 to do so ("Moving Top Teachers to Struggling Schools Has Benefits," Education Week, Nov. 7).

If teachers were motivated by the same incentives that shape human behavior in every other area, they would have jumped at the opportunity to get the bonus.  But they didn't, and they won't, regardless of what some reformers argue (Education Myths, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). That's because teachers are less interested in pecuniary rewards than in psychic income.  What I mean is that teachers place a greater value on the internal satisfaction they get when working conditions allow them to teach as they like than they do from a bigger paycheck.  I'm not saying that money is not important.  Of course it is, or teachers would not go out on strike. But money is secondary.

I can't speak for the elementary school teachers in the Mathematica study who preferred staying in their schools rather than transferring to low-achieving schools and being nicely compensated for doing so. But I'll bet they knew that teaching disadvantaged students in what surely must be schools located in low-income areas would be overwhelming. 

Frankly, I can't blame teachers for wanting to stay put.  Although I taught in the same high school for my entire 28-year career, I remember vividly the effect that demographic changes in Los Angeles had on my instruction.  Lesson plans that used to be quite successful before were suddenly abject flops. With hindsight, I realize they were based on erroneous assumptions about the ability and background of the new students.  How many teachers are willing to jettison countless lesson plans to create ones that will engage students?  It essentially means starting all over again, and in the process facing daily frustration without adequate support.

Yet reports continue to appear that propose naive solutions to the undeniable problem of getting excellent teachers where they are needed the most ("Giving Every Student Access to Excellent Teachers," Public Impact, Nov. 13).  It will take far more than financial incentives to recruit and retain the best teachers because they are neither mercenaries nor missionaries.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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