merited pay

A simple solution for solving teacher shortages: pay incentives for hard-to-find educators

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

Policymakers across the country have fretted about a new wave of potential teacher shortages, particularly in certain subjects and schools. Now a new study offers a straightforward solution: give bonuses or provide loan forgiveness to teachers in positions that are hard to staff.

This conclusion, reached in research recently published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, is perhaps unsurprising, but it’s an approach that apparently few districts have adopted.

The peer-reviewed study, conducted by Li Feng and Tim Sass, focuses on Florida, which put in place student loan forgiveness and bonus programs in order to retain teachers and prevent shortages. Beginning in the 1980s, teachers in identified shortage areas — most frequently in math, science, foreign language, and special education — could receive up to $10,000 over four years to repay loans. The state also offered a one-time retention bonus of up to $1,200 for teachers with satisfactory performance ratings in shortage subjects during the 2000–2001 school year.

To isolate the effects of the initiatives, the researchers use data from 1995 through 2013 to examine retention among teachers who were eligible for bonuses or loan forgiveness versus those who were ineligible. In short, the programs seemed to make a difference.

“We find that loan forgiveness and targeted bonuses can both substantially reduce teacher attrition in high-need areas, although bonuses appear to have a larger impact in the short run,” Feng and Sass write. “Both loan forgiveness and bonuses appear to be cost-effective policies.”

The loan forgiveness program reduced teachers’ likelihood of quitting by about 10 percent annually. The impacts were even larger for the one-time bonus program, cutting teacher turnover by nearly a third in the year it was implemented. That means the chance teachers quit after their first year fell from 17 percent to roughly 11 percent if they received a bonus or to about 15.3 percent if they were eligible for a loan subsidy. 

“A one-time bonus of $1,200 reduced teacher attrition more than loan repayments of comparable magnitude,” the study concludes.

Did the retention efforts keep quality teachers? It’s hard to say definitively, but the researchers were able to measure the effectiveness of middle school and high school math and certain special education teachers. Generally, loan recipients were as good or better than teachers who didn’t participate in the program.

The programs may also have been beneficial because teachers generally improve with experience and it can be expensive to recruit new teachers. The bonuses and loan forgiveness of course did cost money — the loan subsidies amounted to about $3 million annually and the retention bonuses cost $60 million — but the researchers estimate that they were worth the price, particularly the one-time bonus.

A few important caveats: the study focuses on fairly old programs, and it doesn’t examine their longer-run impacts after the financial incentives ended.

“The bonus may have induced teachers to stay in the public school system an additional year, but may not have significantly affected long-run career plans,” the researchers write.

The effectiveness of the program also varied somewhat by subject area and payment size. For example, effects were significant for special education teachers only when loan forgiveness amounts were relatively large, about $2,500.

Still, the study cuts against the idea that money can’t itself incentivize teachers to stay in the classroom, showing that even relatively modest increases in pay can make a difference.

This dovetails with other literature showing that pay really does matter for who enters and stays in teaching. Another recent study found that districts with performance pay recruited more teachers from academically high-achieving colleges. Other research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can increase retention rates, and that higher across-the-board pay can draw more people into the profession and get them to stay.

But policymakers don’t seem to be heeding these findings.

According to federal statistics, as of the 2011–12 school year, only about 13 percent of school districts used pay incentives to attract and retain teachers in shortage areas. Meanwhile, overall teacher pay has fallen relative to other professions. And what about Florida, where we now know the loan forgiveness program was effective?

The state legislature terminated the initiative in 2011.

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hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, last week. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However, teachers attending the monthly meeting disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.