Moving Top Teachers to Struggling Schools Has Benefits
Study probes moving talent to low-performing schools
The transfer of top elementary teachers to low-achieving schools can help boost students' performance, but there's a catch: getting them to agree to move.
A new study, seven years in the making, finds that elementary teachers identified as effective who transferred to low-achieving schools under a bonus-pay program helped their new students learn more, on average, than teachers in a control group did. They also stayed in the schools at least as long as other new hires.
But despite a large financial reward, only 5 percent of eligible teachers made the shift, the report concludes.
"It's a hard sell, even with $20,000 on the table," said Steven M. Glazerman, a senior fellow at the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research, the evaluation firm that conducted the study.
Education advocates have long deplored inequitable access by disadvantaged students to high-quality teaching. The federally financed study suggests there is promise in incentive programs, but highlights the logistical complexities in carrying them out, said Sarah Almy, the director of teacher quality for the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates for poor and minority students.
"I think it's a reminder of how much we still have to understand about this issue, and that it is challenging,” she said.
Called the Talent Transfer Initiative, the program and its study were financed by the U.S. Department of Education's statistical wing.
Project Spans 10 Districts
The initiative examined some 165 teams of teachers in 114 schools, located in 10 districts across seven states. Seven of those districts were followed for two years, from 2009-10 to 2010-2011, and three for one year, from 2010 to 2011.
When teachers with a track record of raising student achievement were given financial rewards to switch to teaching positions in low-performing schools, they tended to stay longer than other new hires. After the bonus payouts ended, they existed at statistically similar rates as other teachers.
Researchers used each district's "value added” measure to identify the most effective 20 percent of teachers in the districts. (Value-added is a statistical way to isolate teachers' contribution to student performance on standardized tests.)
The high-performing teachers were offered $20,000 to transfer to a low-achieving school in the district and to stay there for at least two years. (Effective teachers already located in such schools got $10,000 to continue teaching.) Payouts were made incrementally over the two-year period.
To examine the effects of the transfers, researchers randomly assigned teams of teachers in the same grade and subject with at least one vacancy to a treatment group, which got to hire one of the TTI teachers, or to a control group, which used its normal processes to fill the vacancy.
Then, the researchers compared how students taught by the TTI teachers and their counterparts in the control groups did academically.
At the elementary level, students taught by the TTI participants made greater gains, on average, in both reading and math than their counterparts. The results were even stronger after a second year. In all, the effect sizes ranged from 0.10 to 0.25 standard deviations, or enough to move up each student by 4 to 10 percentile points relative to peers in their state.
The teaching teams the TTI teachers joined also were more effective than those of their counterparts after two years, but those results were smaller, suggesting that the teachers did not have much effect outside their own classrooms.
No Gains at Middle School
The study's findings support evidence from other studies showing that the effectiveness of teachers is transferable, even when they are instructing students with more academic challenges. That's good news, Ms. Almy said, because it helps dispel the idea that a teacher who is successful in one context can't be successful in another.
Teachers in the Talent Transfer Initiative were similar to their counterparts outside the program in most ways, but they were more experienced by about four years and were more likely to hold advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an independent nonprofit. Both factors may have contributed to their performance, but the study doesn't tease out whether such characteristics helped to make them better teachers overall.
Gains were not seen among middle schools teachers participating in the study, a finding the researchers struggled to interpret. The difference may be because of inconsistent results among districts, the authors say. Even at the elementary level, where the net effect of the transfers was positive, some districts had much better results than others.
"Future implementers [of transfer programs] should plan for the possibility of results that differ from the averages presented," the report says.
As for retention, the bonus payouts helped keep the transferring teachers on the job at higher rates. After the two-year initiative ended, the TTI teachers were neither more nor less likely to leave than their peers.
The study points out, though, that it took a large pool—more than 1,500 eligible applicants—to secure the 81 teachers willing to transfer. Many eligible candidates did not attend information sessions, complete an application, or follow through with the interview process.
"There is an implication here that if you want to scale this up, it would be very hard to fill a lot of vacancies, because you would need to have that many more applicants," Mr. Glazerman said. "At some point, you run out of truly high-performing teachers, and there's a risk that if you lowered the bar on teacher selectivity, you wouldn't get the same results."
Ms. Almy of the Education Trust said the onus is on districts to improve working conditions and make lower-performing schools attractive places to work. Financial incentives are not enough, she said. And anecdotally, she added, teachers need to be surrounded by like-minded peers and leaders.
"We hear that even if teachers have what it takes and they're motivated [to transfer], they don't want to be there all by themselves banging their head against the wall," Ms. Almy said.
Vol. 33, Issue 12, Pages 1, 13Published in Print: November 13, 2013, as Transferring Top Teachers Has Benefits