Fulton offered top teachers $20,000 to transfer to struggling schools. Did it work?

My AJC colleague Marlon Walker had an interesting news story about the 1,400 teachers still needed to fill slots in metro Atlanta school districts.

He wrote:

Even amid a national teacher shortage of about 60,000 this time last year, and ongoing concerns with fewer people going to college to become educators, hiring teams have concentrated on aggressive hiring and a widened net for recruiting. School districts have worked to make the jobs more attractive to people, boosting starting salaries and offering signing and retention bonuses, as well as incentive pay for teachers who take assignments at problem schools.

But does incentive pay entice teachers to problem schools?

In 2014, Fulton County announced an ambitious plan to provide top teachers $20, 000 stipends to work in the system's lowest-performing schools. At the time, the AJC reported:

No other system in Georgia offers such pay bumps tied to merit, which are aimed at awarding more money to teachers who elicit high achievement by their students. Fulton is part of a small but growing group of U.S. school systems bucking the long-standing educator pay system to put more focus on rewarding teachers based on standardized tests and other measures.

As part of the plan, Fulton would initially place up to 20 high-performing teachers in at least two elementary schools and one middle school that are under-performing. The teachers would be expected to stay at the school at least two years. To qualify, a teacher would be in the top 25 percent on Georgia's new student growth measure, which is based on standardized test performance.

Fulton leaders say they're modeling the plan off a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education that looked at 10 districts in seven states that tried a similar program. The study found that with the teacher transfers to low-performing schools, test scores at the elementary level rose while those at the middle school level were mixed.

A year later, in 2015, the AJC checked on the progress of the Fulton pilot and found the district laboring to lure these highly qualified teachers to lower-performing schools.

The newspaper reported:

Although 375 were eligible to participate, only 32 applied, according to Eddie Breaux, a human resources staff director for Fulton schools. He said some of the teachers who did not apply said they believed teachers and principals would not support them. Many did not want to make longer commutes.

So what finally happened to the Fulton experiment? It faded away. The architects, former Fulton superintendent Robert Avossa and chief strategy and innovation officer Ken Zeff, are gone. Avossa is leading the Palm Beach County schools in Florida, and Zeff heads a new metro corporate and civic initiative to improve schools, Learn4Life.

Here is what Fulton Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale told me in an email:

Our Strategic Staffing Initiative was a relatively small-scale program (10 teachers in the first cohort, 7 in the second cohort, across three schools) that examined how we might incentivize high performing teachers to teach at high-needs schools.

Based on our experience after two years, we have been successful in some areas, and learned some useful lessons in other areas.

In terms of successes, we were able to attract effective teachers to high-needs schools, albeit on a small-scale. Additionally, the program had a positive impact on the resource allocation in schools, as participating teachers did not require as many supports and provided more mentoring to their peers, as compared to other teachers who were new to their schools.

Anecdotally, several of the participating teachers viewed their participation as “one of the best decisions” made in their educational careers and feel they have made a great impact on students’ lives.  This was a growth opportunity for many of the teachers as they later assumed roles like department/grade level chair, were selected for programs like the FCS Aspiring Leaders cohort, and even received promotions into roles where they expanded their impact by formally coaching other teachers.

However, we ultimately do not view this as a scalable model for Fulton County Schools at this time. Some of the reasons for this conclusion include the limitations of the tools used to identify high performing teachers (Student Growth Percentiles, TKES), the challenging geography of our district (the distance to schools for many potential applicants is too far), perceptions of school climate and culture by potential applicants, and perceived and real struggles of teachers fitting in at their new schools.

Hale's reference to the limitations of tools to identify high-performing teachers is reflected in two new studies that found principals rate most teachers as “effective,” despite a national movement  to create more nuanced calibrations of teacher performance,

In reporting on the studies about the high scores still being accorded nearly all teachers, Education Week said:

And there’s good evidence that those scores are inflated: When principals are asked their opinions of teachers in confidence and with no stakes attached, they’re much more likely to give harsh ratings, the researchers found.

That’s in part because principals want to maintain good relationships with their teachers, which can be tough to do when they have to confront them with bad reviews, the researchers say. For some principals, though, the hesitation to give low scores is a product of being strapped for time.

“It’s very, very time-consuming to document poor performance,” said Marilyn Boerke, a former principal who is the director of talent development for the Camas school district in Washington state. “At the end of the year, if you haven’t repeatedly gone into the classroom and given the teacher suggestions for improvements, it’s not really fair to give a poor evaluation.”

Despite Fulton's experience and that of other systems around the country, districts are still dangling bonuses in front of teachers to draw them to tough schools. Last year, the Pinellas County school system in Florida announced it would pay teachers up to $25,000 more a year to teach at low-performing schools in St. Petersburg. (The teachers would also have to attend training, work a longer school day and teach in a summer program.)

Even the feds had few takers when it proffered $20,000 to 1,500 highly effective teachers in urban districts if they would transfer to a high-poverty school. Less than 25 percent expressed interest.

Writing about the reluctance of teachers to jump schools even for hefty bonuses, the Atlantic noted: 

The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute.

Your thoughts on how to get good teachers into struggling schools?

 

About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey is a longtime reporter for the AJC where she has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy for...
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