Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Transfer Incentives Produce Disappointing Results

Will paying excellent teachers a bonus to transfer to low-performing schools help the students who attend them?

That was the question posed by a recent extensive and well-executed study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. Early data, however, suggests the results are disappointing, according to a new review of the research released today.

Mathematica’s report on the project, Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers, was reviewed for the National Education Policy Center’s Think Twice think tank review project by Donald B. Gratz, professor and Education Department chair at Curry College in Milton, Mass. The review is published by the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

The Teacher Transfer Incentive project actively encouraged 1,500 “high-performing” elementary teachers in 10 urban school districts to transfer to low-performing schools in return for a total stipend of $20,000 distributed over two years. The teachers were all identified as having students who were in the top 20 percent in their districts, based on a value-added measure of standardized test scores.

Two key research questions were addressed by the study: were the incentives successful, and were the teachers successful? That is, did the incentive move teachers to, and keep teachers at, the target schools? And were the teachers who moved associated with better student outcomes in the new schools? The success of the policy depends on affirmative answers to each question.

The study found that 5 percent of the identified “high-performing” teachers agreed to transfer. Of those, 90 percent stayed in their new schools the full two years required to collect the stipend, but just 60 percent indicated they would stay on for a third year – a rate matching those teachers who were not given the incentive.

This is a mixed record of success, but it does hint at some potential. “The results suggest that a financial incentive would have to remain in place longer to continue high teacher retention rates, making the program much more expensive,” Gratz writes.

The study also found that while elementary school students seem to have benefited modestly from the teachers who had transferred in, middle school students showed no indication of having benefited. If these results were replicated and held up over time, they would suggest that a sustained incentive pay plan focused on teachers in elementary schools could have modest positive effects on test scores.

But the study was too short to support conclusions about the long-term impact of the transfer-incentive policy, Gratz writes. He also notes that using only test scores to measure student outcomes further limits the conclusions policymakers might draw from the results. The reviewer additionally raises concerns about the ethical implications of “a transfer policy that implies winners and losers” – with the schools and students where the teachers were formerly high-performing on the losing end.

Gratz is former director of national school reform for the Community Training and Assistance Center in Boston, organizing and providing technical assistance and support in urban school districts nationwide. He is author of The Peril and Promise of Performance Pay (Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2009).

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