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Luring Best Teachers to Worst Schools

Financial incentives to entice teachers to teach in schools where they are most needed have great intuitive appeal (" 'Turbo-charge' young teachers' careers to get them to teach in tough schools, says social mobility tsar," The Telegraph, Jul. 12).  But the U.K. will soon learn what the U.S. has long known: they won't work.  At least that's been the experience in 30 states that have offered what is sometimes called combat pay.

Despite the argument that education is no different than other fields of work, the incentives that shape human behavior elsewhere have proven to be ineffective.  Teachers are more interested in working conditions, administrative support and student discipline than in higher salaries. But even if teachers can initially be recruited to hard-to-staff schools, they do not stay. This turnover costs schools between $1 billion and $2.2 billion annually, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Minority teachers quit at a far higher rate than white teachers, calling into question the belief that minority students respond best to teachers of their own ethnicity.  If that were the case, schools with a preponderance of minority students would be coveted by minority teachers.  But they remain undesirable.

To address the recruitment-retention problem, states have tried various strategies.  In California, teachers who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards are eligible for a $20,000 bonus if they agree to teach in a high-priority school for four years.  To date, the program has found few takers.

Massachusetts in 1999 began offering new teachers $20,000 bonuses.  But one-fifth of them left after one year in the classroom in tough schools. Mississippi has had better luck through a combination of college scholarships and housing assistance programs.  According to the state's student- and teacher-information system, 254 of the original 332 teachers who completed the Critical Needs Teacher Scholarship Program since it began in 1998 are still in the classroom.

Recognizing the limitations of combat pay alone, the Milken Family Foundation launched an innovative four-part program that included multiple career paths, ongoing school-based professional development, evaluations linked to student performance and performance-based compensation.  This multi-faceted approach has greater appeal to date to teachers than higher salaries.

It's important to remember in the midst of the debate that although teachers are the most important in-school factor in learning, they are not miracle workers.  Students spend more of their waking hours at home and in their neighborhood. Even the best teachers cannot overcome the deficits that these students bring to school through no fault of their own.  No amount of money in the world can change that reality.

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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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