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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meet the fellows

Meet the 38 teachers chosen by SCORE to champion education around Tennessee

PHOTO: SCORE
The year-long fellowships offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education were awarded to 38 Tennessee educators.

Six teachers from Memphis have been awarded fellowships that will allow them to spend the next year supporting better education in Tennessee.

The year-long fellowships, offered by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, train and encourage teachers and other educators to speak at events, write publicly about their experiences, and invite policymakers to their classrooms. The program is in its fifth year through the nonpartisan advocacy and research organization, also known as SCORE, which was founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from Tennessee.

The fellowships, known as the Tennessee Educator Fellowships, have been awarded to 150 educators since the program’s launch in 2014. This year’s class of 38 educators from around the state have a combined 479 years of experience.

“The fellows’ diverse perspectives and experiences are invaluable as they work both inside and outside the classroom and participate in state conversations on preparing all students for postsecondary and workforce success,” SCORE President and CEO Jamie Woodson said in a news release.

Besides the Shelby County teachers, the group also includes educators who work for the state-run Achievement School District, public Montessori schools, and a school dedicated to serving children with multiple disabilities.

The 2018-19 fellows are:

  • Nathan Bailey, career technical education at Sullivan North High School, Sullivan County Schools
  • Kalisha Bingham-Marshall, seventh-grade math at Bolivar Middle School, Hardeman County Schools
  • Sam Brobeck, eighth-grade math at Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter Middle School. Shelby County Schools
  • Monica Brown, fourth-grade English language arts and social studies at Oakshire Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Nick Brown, school counselor at Westmoreland Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Sherwanda Chism, grades 3-5 English language arts and gifted education at Winridge Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Richard J. Church, grades 7-8 at Liberty Bell Middle School, Johnson City Schools
  • Ada Collins, third grade at J.E. Moss Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Lynn Cooper,  school counselor at South Pittsburg High School, Marion County Schools
  • Colletta M. Daniels, grades 2-4 special education at Shrine School, Shelby County Schools
  • Brandy Eason, school counselor at Scotts Hill Elementary School, Henderson County Schools
  • Heather Eskridge, school counselor at Walter Hill Elementary School, Rutherford County Schools
  • Klavish Faraj, third-grade math and science at Paragon Mills Elementary School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Mavis Clark Foster, fifth-grade English language arts and science at Green Magnet Academy, Knox County Schools
  • Ranita Glenn, grades 2-5 reading at Hardy Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Telena Haneline, first grade at Eaton Elementary School, Loudon County Schools
  • Tenesha Hardin, first grade at West Creek Elementary School, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools
  • Thaddeus Higgins, grades 9-12 social studies at Unicoi County High School, Unicoi County Schools
  • Neven Holland, fourth-grade math at Treadwell Elementary School, Shelby County Schools
  • Alicia Hunker, sixth-grade math at Valor Flagship Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Alex Juneau, third grade at John Pittard Elementary School, Murfreesboro City Schools
  • Lyndi King, fifth-grade English language arts at Decatur County Middle School, Decatur County Schools
  • Rebecca Ledebuhr, eighth-grade math at STEM Preparatory Academy, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Aleisha McCallie, fourth-grade math and science at East Brainerd Elementary School, Hamilton County Department of Education.
  • Brian McLaughlin, grades 10-12 math at Morristown-Hamblen High School West, Hamblen County Schools
  • Caitlin Nowell, seventh-grade English language arts at South Doyle Middle School, Knox County Schools
  • Paula Pendergrass, advanced academics resources at Granbery Elementary School,  Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Julie Pepperman, eighth-grade science at Heritage Middle School, Blount County Schools
  • Kelly Piatt, school counselor at Crockett County High School, Crockett County Schools
  • Ontoni Reedy, grades 1-3 at Community Montessori, Jackson-Madison County Schools
  • Tiffany Roberts, algebra and geometry at Lincoln County Ninth Grade Academy, Lincoln County Schools
  • Craig Robinson, grades 3-5 science at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, Achievement School District
  • Jen Semanco, 10th- and 11th-grade English language arts at Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Amanda Smithfield, librarian at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet School, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools
  • Cyndi Snapp, fourth-grade math at Carter’s Valley Elementary School, Hawkins County Schools
  • David Sneed, 12th-grade English at Soddy Daisy High School, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Yolanda Parker Williams, fifth-grade math at Karns Elementary School, Knox County Schools
  • Maury Wood II, grades 4-6 technology at Westhills Elementary School, Marshall County Schools

work hard play hard

Memphis teachers share basketball, even if they don’t share a district

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Freedom Preparatory Academy is gathering teachers from district-run and charter schools to play basketball. The teachers, mostly black men, have turned it into a networking opportunity as well as a way to let off steam.