Researcher: Teacher Signing Bonuses Miss Mark in Mass.

By Debra Viadero — February 21, 2001 4 min read
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With one-fifth of the recipients leaving the classroom after one year and many of the rest heading for suburban schools, Massachusetts’ effort to lure new teachers with $20,000 signing bonuses is falling short of the mark, says a report released last week.

“The state’s new door into teaching is looking more and more like a revolving door—a gold-plated revolving door,” said author R. Clarke Fowler, an associate professor of education at Salem State College in Salem, Mass. “This approach promises not to resolve the state’s coming teacher shortage but to aggravate and extend it.”

But state education officials, noting that the vast majority of teachers recruited through the program are still teaching, continued to call its results encouraging.

Massachusetts made national headlines in 1999 when state education officials announced plans to offer $20,000 bonuses and fast- track training programs to individuals around the country who agreed to join Massachusetts’ teaching force. The aim was to improve the quality of the state’s teachers and to forestall teaching shortages that were expected to hit the state’s urban communities especially hard. (“Mass. ‘Bonus Babies’ Get Crash Course,’ Sept. 6, 2000.)

Of the 63 students recruited into the program in the spring of 1999, four dropped out before setting foot in a classroom. Another 12 left after the first year, and one failed to return this year, according to Mr. Fowler. At 20 percent, that attrition rate is a little more than double the national average for first-year teachers.

Also, fewer than half the so-called “bonus babies” ended up teaching in the urban districts where they were needed most, according to the report. At the same time, the percentage of bonus recipients working in more affluent communities, such as Newton and Lexington, has doubled since the start of the program, growing from 14 percent in the fall of 1999 to 30 percent this past fall. Newton, for example, a suburban Boston district where fewer than 6 percent of students qualify for federal lunch subsidies, has three bonus teachers. Only one such teacher, however, works in Lawrence, a district where three-fourths of the students are poor enough to get subsidized lunches, the report says.

“What the state does here is give people extra money to go to the wealthiest communities in the state,” said Mr. Fowler.

No Strings Attached

But Ann L. Duffy, the state’s associate commissioner for educator quality, pointed out that, from the start, the new teachers were never required to teach in urban schools.

“As long as they’re teaching in Massachusetts public schools, they’re still eligible for the bonuses,” she said. “We hope and work hard to make sure folks are teaching where they’re most needed.” She noted, for example, that teachers do their practice teaching in urban summer school classrooms.

One reason for the high attrition rates, Mr. Fowler said, may be that the new teachers feel unprepared for the classroom after attending the state’s training program, known as the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers. The institute is modeled on the Teach For America program, which provides college graduates with an intensive summer-training course before sending them out to teach in high-need schools. The Bay State program includes seven weeks of pedagogy, educational theory, and classroom- management lessons coupled with practice teaching in summer school.

Other researchers tracking the “bonus babies” have in fact, drawn similar conclusions.

“It was quite clear they had found the summer component insufficient given the realities of day-to-day teaching,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a researcher at the Harvard University graduate school of education. With colleagues, she tracked 50 new Massachusetts teachers, 13 of whom were in the program. Four of those 13 have since left.

The bonus teachers’ feelings of inadequacy were compounded in the classrooms, Ms. Johnson found, when they failed to get needed support from mentor teachers or school administrators.

Mr. Fowler’s report also takes the state education department to task for making multiple recruitment trips to such states as California and Texas, which are facing teacher shortages more severe than Massachusetts’. Few of the bonus teachers, in fact, came from outside New England.

But Ms. Duffy said travel for those trips cost $15,000—a small fraction of the thousands spent so far on the program. “We believe it’s important to get the message out that Massachusetts values educators in this way,” she said.

The state expanded the program last year to recruit 105 new bonus teachers, and Gov. Paul Cellucci last month proposed expanding fast-track training sites for the program around the state. State officials maintain, in fact, that their success has inspired similar efforts in California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and New York.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as Researcher: Teacher Signing Bonuses Miss Mark in Mass.


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