mathteacher010612-300x2491.pngEncouraging results from a study on cash incentives for transferring teachers to low-performing schools could have implications for districts eyeing options under the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF.

The federally funded study by Mathematica Policy Research evaluated the impact of offering high-performing teachers a $20,000 bonus over two years to switch schools. It found that enough teachers took the offer, subsequently raised test scores of their students during the two years of the study and remained in their new schools at the same rate as other teachers after the money ended. 

Mathematica didn’t name the 10 large, economically diverse districts from seven states in its findings, although an earlier news release from Mathematica mentioned Los Angles Unified and Sacramento City Unified as two California districts that participated, along with Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.

A decade ago, when California briefly had more money, the state did a related initiative to lure newly licensed teachers into low-performing districts. For the two years it existed, the Governor’s Teaching Fellowship, also a $20,000 incentive program, awarded nearly 1,200 grants on the condition that teachers stay in their districts four years – or repay some of the money. Until the recession hit, the state also offered $11,000 in loan forgiveness (more for special education teachers and high-shortage subjects) in a separate program, APLE (Assuming Program for Loans in Education) for teachers willing to commit four years to low-income districts with low Academic Performance Index (API) scores.

With LCFF, such programs could see a revival on a local level, as districts decide what to do with additional money – hundreds of dollars per student in some cases in the next few years – targeted for high-needs students. In a new booklet on the funding formula, Education Trust-West cites incentives and supports for teachers and principals willing to work in the highest-need schools as one of a baker’s dozen districtwide options for LCFF dollars.

During the two-year program, when they received four $5,000 payments, 93 percent of the teachers in the Talent Transfer Initiative program (identified as focal treatment). By the third year, the 60 percent who returned represented the same retention rnate as the teachers from the control group hired at the same time (identified as focal control) and other teachers in the grades (nonfocal treatment and nonfocal control). Source: Mathematica Policy Research.

During the two-year program, when they received four $5,000 payments, 93 percent of the teachers in the Talent Transfer Initiative (identified as “focal treatment”) stayed in the program. By the third year, the 60 percent who returned represented the same retention rate as the teachers from the control group hired at the same time (identified as “focal control”) and other teachers in the grades (“non-focal treatment” and “non-focal control”). Source: Mathematica Policy Research

“Salary incentives to attract highly effective and high-needs teachers are great uses of supplementary and concentration money” (the LCFF portion designated for English learners, foster youth and low-income students), said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West.

Contrary to the Governor’s Teacher Fellowships and APLE, Mathematica’s “Talent Transfer Initiative” sought out veteran, accomplished teachers for transfers – those defined as the top 20 percent of teachers by grade span and subject based on value-added test scores (adjusted to account for the demographics of their students).

Out of the 1,500 teachers Mathematica identified in the 10 districts, nearly four out of five didn’t pursue the offer. But the 22 percent who did apply for a transfer provided a big enough pool. After interviews, one out of about four (5 percent of the total) were hired by principals to fill 88 percent of the openings in the designated middle and elementary schools.

Mathematica compared the incentivized teachers with a control group of teachers hired in similar low-achieving schools in the same districts. It turned out they were mostly veteran teachers, too, averaging eight years of experience ­– compared with 12 years for the incentivized teachers. Less than one in five in the control group were new to teaching.

The study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, lasted only two years. Among the results, Mathematica found that:

  • The 80 Talent Transfer Initiative teachers in the program significantly raised scores in both math and reading in elementary grades, compared with the control group teachers, by the equivalent of 4 to 10 percentile points, depending on the year and subject.
  • There was no evidence of an impact on middle schools and a negative impact on reading in the second year in middle school for the incentivized teachers. Mathematica suggested that could reflect variations within a district with a bigger middle school representation.
  • The incentivized teachers had a positive but not a significant impact on the team of teachers they worked with in elementary school. While that suggested that the teachers “have minimal or no effect on their colleagues’ performance,” Mathematica did find that they provided more mentoring of teachers than their counterparts in the control group.
  • At the end of the two-year payout, about 60 percent of the original group of high-performing teachers returned for a third year – about the same rate as the teachers in the control group. The retention rate was the same as for other teachers in the school.


A two-year study makes it impossible to predict long-term effects. But Mathematica suggested that a Teacher Transfer Initiative could be more cost-effective in increasing student achievement, depending on the district and grade level, than a similar effort to lower class sizes to get the same results.

Most teachers unions oppose differentiated pay and are skeptical of pay incentives for teaching in low-performing schools.

“Money is not only thing to incentivize teachers,” said Nikki Milevsky, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association. “Teachers need good conditions for student learning and to have their opinions valued.” Those are the factors, along with principals who trust teachers to know what resources and training they need, that will determine whether effective teachers stay at a school, she said.

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him or follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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  1. CarolineSF says:

    “…teachers … remained in their new schools at the same rate as other teachers after the money ended.”

    Meaning teachers who received the incentive money stayed in the new schools as long as teachers who hadn’t received the incentive money. But we’re talking about the schools that are chronically plagued by high teacher turnover, aren’t we? So how long DID they stick around?

    Paul M., I’m sorry to say that as the wife of a substitute teacher who works at many different schools, I can attest that low-performing schools do tend to be much more challenging to teach at. It’s nobody’s *fault* — there are simply more students who have unstable life situations, have endured traumas and suffer from lack of family resources (including resources to help mitigate the effects of instability and life traumas). Sorry to be the dash of cold water.

  2. Gary Ravani says:

    Mathmatica tends toward “outlier” results in a number of its “studies.” Since the study covered a limited time span it remains to be seen if such incentives really do anything to offset the overall personnel churn that afflicts some schools. This also conflicts with the results of “exit interview” information suggesting that teachers leave certain schools at higher rate than some other schools because of a lack of leadership and resources at those schools.

  3. Paul Muench says:

    Interesting tjat the teachers stayed after the incentive money stopped. Maybe the schools are unduly stigmatized.