merited pay

A simple solution for solving teacher shortages: pay incentives for hard-to-find educators

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

Policymakers across the country have fretted about a new wave of potential teacher shortages, particularly in certain subjects and schools. Now a new study offers a straightforward solution: give bonuses or provide loan forgiveness to teachers in positions that are hard to staff.

This conclusion, reached in research recently published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, is perhaps unsurprising, but it’s an approach that apparently few districts have adopted.

The peer-reviewed study, conducted by Li Feng and Tim Sass, focuses on Florida, which put in place student loan forgiveness and bonus programs in order to retain teachers and prevent shortages. Beginning in the 1980s, teachers in identified shortage areas — most frequently in math, science, foreign language, and special education — could receive up to $10,000 over four years to repay loans. The state also offered a one-time retention bonus of up to $1,200 for teachers with satisfactory performance ratings in shortage subjects during the 2000–2001 school year.

To isolate the effects of the initiatives, the researchers use data from 1995 through 2013 to examine retention among teachers who were eligible for bonuses or loan forgiveness versus those who were ineligible. In short, the programs seemed to make a difference.

“We find that loan forgiveness and targeted bonuses can both substantially reduce teacher attrition in high-need areas, although bonuses appear to have a larger impact in the short run,” Feng and Sass write. “Both loan forgiveness and bonuses appear to be cost-effective policies.”

The loan forgiveness program reduced teachers’ likelihood of quitting by about 10 percent annually. The impacts were even larger for the one-time bonus program, cutting teacher turnover by nearly a third in the year it was implemented. That means the chance teachers quit after their first year fell from 17 percent to roughly 11 percent if they received a bonus or to about 15.3 percent if they were eligible for a loan subsidy. 

“A one-time bonus of $1,200 reduced teacher attrition more than loan repayments of comparable magnitude,” the study concludes.

Did the retention efforts keep quality teachers? It’s hard to say definitively, but the researchers were able to measure the effectiveness of middle school and high school math and certain special education teachers. Generally, loan recipients were as good or better than teachers who didn’t participate in the program.

The programs may also have been beneficial because teachers generally improve with experience and it can be expensive to recruit new teachers. The bonuses and loan forgiveness of course did cost money — the loan subsidies amounted to about $3 million annually and the retention bonuses cost $60 million — but the researchers estimate that they were worth the price, particularly the one-time bonus.

A few important caveats: the study focuses on fairly old programs, and it doesn’t examine their longer-run impacts after the financial incentives ended.

“The bonus may have induced teachers to stay in the public school system an additional year, but may not have significantly affected long-run career plans,” the researchers write.

The effectiveness of the program also varied somewhat by subject area and payment size. For example, effects were significant for special education teachers only when loan forgiveness amounts were relatively large, about $2,500.

Still, the study cuts against the idea that money can’t itself incentivize teachers to stay in the classroom, showing that even relatively modest increases in pay can make a difference.

This dovetails with other literature showing that pay really does matter for who enters and stays in teaching. Another recent study found that districts with performance pay recruited more teachers from academically high-achieving colleges. Other research has found that hard-to-staff and performance bonuses can increase retention rates, and that higher across-the-board pay can draw more people into the profession and get them to stay.

But policymakers don’t seem to be heeding these findings.

According to federal statistics, as of the 2011–12 school year, only about 13 percent of school districts used pay incentives to attract and retain teachers in shortage areas. Meanwhile, overall teacher pay has fallen relative to other professions. And what about Florida, where we now know the loan forgiveness program was effective?

The state legislature terminated the initiative in 2011.

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Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

money talks

Why Colorado teachers marched on the state Capitol

Teachers in red gather in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Chanting “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!” and “Whose schools? Our schools!” several hundred teachers came to the Colorado State Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. They marched down Colfax Avenue and around the Capitol building before filling the halls to lobby legislators and rallying in the rotunda.

Emboldened by teacher strikes and walkouts across the nation, a majority of the teachers from the suburban Englewood district joined the day of action, forcing the district to cancel classes, but the protest was a small shadow of the labor unrest among educators in other states.

In interviews, teachers said they recognize the state’s fiscal constraints. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights places a constitutional cap on how much the state budget can grow, even when the economy is good, and requires voters to approve all tax increases. In the afternoon, House Democrats told teachers to go back to their communities and urge voters to approve a major tax increase that could appear on the November ballot.

We asked teachers why they were marching, and this is what they had to say:

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Cody Jump teaches government in rural Lake County, where health insurance rates are among the highest in the country and schools have a hard time filling open positions.

Low pay contributes to high teacher turnover, he said, and if changes to the state public employee retirement system are too onerous, he thinks many younger teachers will leave the profession.

The Democratic-controlled House is currently putting its own stamp on a bill that aims to address an unfunded liability in the state pension system of between $32 billion and $50 billion. The version that came out of the Republican-controlled Senate raises the retirement age, limits cost-of-living raises for retirees, and asks current teachers to pay more. Amendments put on in the House make the bill friendlier to teachers, but the final version still needs to be hashed out.

“We’re trying to stabilize our profession and bring a sense of dignity to teaching so our kids can have the stable schools they need to thrive,” he said.

Jump said he has two young children, and he and his wife use several forms of public assistance just to get by, including visiting a monthly food bank.

“If we miss that, our pantry is in trouble,” he said. Enough teacher families use the food bank that it’s become a social gathering spot for their spouses.

If something doesn’t change, he said, the quality of education will suffer.

“There are good, high-quality teachers who just will not come here,” he said. “I don’t want my son to spend a decade in a school system full of people we had to scrape together.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Amy Nagel is a physical education teacher in an Englewood elementary school, just south of Denver. Her biggest concern is the lack of mental health services and counselors in schools. Many of the children she teaches come into school having already experienced trauma in their young lives, she said, and they need counseling and support before they can learn well.

“There is a misunderstanding that we’re asking for pay raises,” she said. “This is 100 percent about making sure that our schools are funded. We deserve pay raises, but we’re here for our kids.”

The decision by Englewood teachers to leave school en masse was inspired in part by teacher action in other states, she said.

“I think the government is really hoping we will be teachers to our core and be quiet and keep the peace,” she said. “I hope that teachers see the activism and know that they’re supported and know that interrupting a little bit of a child’s education to impact decades of education is worth it.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Kathryn Brown is a counselor at an alternative high school in the Englewood district. She said she’s marching for more school funding and to protect retirement benefits.

“I feel very fortunate because my school values the mental health professionals who work there, but it’s often one of the first things cut,” she said. “So when we’re talking about school funding, we’re not just talking about academics. We’re talking about educating the whole child.”

If retirement benefits become less generous, younger teachers and counselors “absolutely” will leave the profession, Brown said.

“We don’t get paid very much, but at the end we’re promised a good retirement,” she said. “And I want my retirement.

Like many of her colleagues, Nagel has a master’s degree and student loans she can’t pay off.

“That’s okay because I love to do what I do, but at some point new educators, new counselors are going to say, this is it, it’s not worth it,” she said.

Brown said Englewood teachers were inspired by teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia.

“It emboldened our teachers and gave us a lot of courage because we’ve seen it in other states,” she said. “I think educators are fed up with not being valued and not being paid.”