Special Report
Recruitment & Retention

Pay Raises and Pandemic Bonuses: Can They Keep Teachers in Classrooms?

By Sarah Schwartz — May 04, 2021 8 min read
Woman paying bills.

Teaching has long been a profession with long hours and low pay. Compared to other jobs that require a similar level of education and training, teachers make less money. Still, many educators will say they didn’t get into the job expecting a big salary.

But after a pandemic school year that brought heightened stress and mounting responsibilities, the love of the work that keeps so many teachers in the classroom—despite the financial trade-offs—may be eroding.

Jennifer Ward, a 1st grade teacher in Peachtree City, Ga., said the pandemic added an extra layer of worries to her school day. Ward, who’s been teaching in person since August, has to constantly monitor students to make sure that they’re keeping their masks on and staying distanced. The paraprofessionals who work in her and her colleagues’ rooms are pulled out regularly to cover classes when substitutes are in short supply, she said.

On top of that, Ward still has had a regular year’s responsibilities: charting student data, writing reports, attending professional development sessions. The working conditions became unsustainable, she said.

She’s considering leaving at the end of next year—her 29th in the classroom—and cashing out her sick leave to make it to the 30 years she needs to retire with full benefits. “I really wanted to stay and do my full 30, but this year has been so hard,” Ward said.

At the same time, her state of Georgia is putting forth an effort to get teachers to stay: a $1,000 pandemic bonus, which teachers are supposed to receive before the end of June. The state schools Superintendent Richard Woods called the bonuses a “tangible gesture of our gratitude,” and a “means of retaining” teachers and support staff.

Other states are taking similar steps: Utah is paying teachers a $1,500 bonus this spring. The North Carolina governor has included a $2,000 teacher bonus, which would be paid out in May, in his budget proposal. And in some states, proposed teacher pay raises that were shelved in 2020 have been reintroduced in budget bills.

But Ward, in Georgia, said the money wouldn’t change her mind about leaving: “I appreciate that they realize that we’ve had to work harder. That is about the extent of it,” she said.

In an average year, effects of extra pay are mixed

In general, the effects of financial incentives on teacher retention can be difficult to parse.

Teacher experience surveys and other research do suggest a clear link between higher salaries and improved job satisfaction and retention. In a nationally representative survey from March of this year, the EdWeek Research Center asked teachers what, if anything, their school or district could do that would make a major difference in reducing the likelihood that they would leave the profession within the next two years. Increasing salary was the top response—57 percent of teachers said that would make a major difference for them.

It’s unclear, though, exactly how much money makes the difference for teachers on the cusp of leaving.

A 2013 evaluation report from the Institute of Education Sciences looked at high-performing teachers who were offered a $20,000 bonus in installments—much more money than the pandemic bonuses being offered this year—to transfer to schools with low average test scores.

The bonus offerings filled most of the vacancies and kept teachers at their new schools while the money was being paid out. But after the last installment, retention rates dropped, and were similar to those for teachers who didn’t get the bonus.

Pay isn’t the only consideration for teachers deciding whether to stay: Working conditions and administrative support also play big roles in retention. In the EdWeek Research Center’s survey, teachers cited these as factors: 43 percent said reducing administrative burdens would make them more likely to stay in teaching; 31 percent said smaller class sizes would do the same.

After a year of long hours and shifting work conditions, is the extra money some states are proposing enough to keep teachers in the classroom?

The pandemic ‘paused everything’ in fight for higher teacher salaries

Just a few years ago, teachers took to the streets in a nationwide movement for higher salaries and increases to education funding.

Starting in 2018 with the West Virginia teacher strike, educators led labor actions and protests that resulted in at least 15 states giving their teachers a raise. The amounts varied widely, though—for example, Arizona’s governor proposed a 20 percent raise by 2020; Nevada raised money for teacher salaries by 3 percent. Nationally, the average teacher starting salary went up by 2.5 percent from the 2018-19 school year to the 2019-20 school year, according to the National Education Association’s annual report on teacher pay. Still, many of these proposals were set to be phased in over several years.

But then the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools and slimmed state budgets. “That sort of paused everything,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor and the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Several states shelved planned teacher pay raises.

At the same time, teachers said they felt the loss of the public support they had won over the past few years’ fight for higher salaries.

Even so, the mass exodus of educators from the profession that some predicted hasn’t yet materialized on a national level, though there are plenty of regional variations. This might be explained by the economic uncertainty of the past year, said Megan Boren, a program specialist at the Southern Regional Education Board. Historically, downturns lead to less attrition from teaching, which is seen as a stable profession, she said.

v40 32 Teacher Retention 3

“People don’t want to lose their job and their health insurance,” said Francine Confer, an administrative intern in the East Penn school district in Pennsylvania, who previously taught 1st grade. Teachers in her district took a salary freeze during the 2020-21 school year, a measure aimed at avoiding furloughs. Still, Confer said, she didn’t know any teachers who left. “In areas where hiring full-time staff is not an issue, I think that they’re not walking out on their jobs,” she said.

This could change as the economy builds back up, said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research. Teachers are more likely to leave their school or the profession when the economy is doing well, he said.

Whether bonuses or pay raises could slow that trend is an open question, said Boren: “We don’t exactly know what is going to help feed retention and recruitment with what happened in the past year.”

States propose teacher pay hikes as economies start to recover

State economies are already starting to rebound, said Christopher Duncombe, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States.

In some areas, this has led to full or partial restoration of teacher raises that were cut last year, he said. In Tennessee, for example, Gov. Bill Lee proposed a 4 percent increase toward teacher salaries in the funding formula—a bump that had been planned for the 2020-21 year, but was then scrapped. Virginia’s budget includes a 5 percent increase to teacher pay. And South Carolina plans to reinstate step raises that were frozen last year due to the pandemic.

“I will not tell you that there are educators who are disappointed about an increase in salary,” said Beth Brown, the president of the Tennessee Education Association. But she said, teachers would want to see a bigger step up than just a restoration of previous cuts.

Other states have proposed further boosts to teacher pay, beyond what was taken off the table last spring. Idaho froze movement up the state’s career ladder for instructional and pupil services staff last year, a cut that amounted to $26.6 million. This year, Gov. Brad Little is proposing $44.9 million toward raises up the ladder.

And North Carolina’s governor, Roy Cooper, is proposing a 10 percent boost to teacher salaries over two years, and a $2,000 one-time bonus.

“That 10 percent bonus would definitely make me want to stay,” said LaJeanne Ashley, a 5th grade teacher in Timberlake, N.C. She’s eligible for retirement and hasn’t decided whether she will come back to the building next year. The extra pay would seal the deal.

Still, she doesn’t have her hopes up that the pay hike will pass. “We’ve talked bonuses and we’ve talked raises before, and they haven’t come to fruition,” Ashley said. “So, the proof is in the pudding.”

Schools will soon see another influx of federal COVID-19 relief money—$129 million from the stimulus package President Joe Biden signed in March. But as Education Week has reported, district leaders’ top priorities for the money are centered on technology purchases, academic enrichment, and facilities upgrades, rather than permanent salary increases.

That’s a sound financial decision, Roza said, because the stimulus money is a one-time influx of cash—districts shouldn’t commit to raises that they can’t sustain in the absence of federal money.

When these stimulus funds are feeding teacher pay, it’s often in the form of one-time bonuses. Georgia’s $1,000 bonus for teachers is funded with federal aid, as are planned bonuses in Metro Nashville public schools and Cumberland County schools, both in Tennessee.

Still, it’s important to consider these bonuses in context, said Lisa Morgan, the president of the Georgia Association of Educators. Yes, Georgia teachers are getting a one-time payment of $1,000. But that’s only after the Georgia legislature cut Gov. Brian Kemp’s proposed $2,000 raise during the 2020 budgeting process. All of that is less than the amount needed to reach the $5,000 pay hike the governor promised three years ago, Morgan said.

“I think a lot of folks are hoping that bonuses will help kind of improve the feeling that teachers and all of their extra work this year and the extra stress they’ve been under will be appreciated,” said Boren. ”We’re not really sure if it’s going to be enough in the places that have seen increased retirements or increased turnover.”


Advice for Teachers to Prevent Burnout | Roadtrip Nation


Trevor Boffone, a high school Spanish teacher in Houston who spoke with Roadtrip Nation, offers advice on how to prevent burnout. He talks about only working contract hours, finding the things that bring you joy, and putting yourself first.

Video courtesy of Roadtrip Nation

Coverage of teacher retention and recruitment is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, at carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 2021 edition of Education Week as Pay Raises and Pandemic Bonuses: Can They Keep Teachers in Classrooms?

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