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Bonuses for top teachers had impact, study finds

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

An extensive new federal study on merit pay for high-performing teachers has found that giving bonuses to top teachers who agree to work in under-achieving, low-income schools had an immediate and positive impact on students’ math and reading test scores.

The so-called Talent Transfer Initiative was implemented in 10 school districts in seven cities around the country, including Los Angeles, Houston and Miami, in 2010 and 2011. It offered teachers who performed in the top 20 percent of their school district a bonus of $20,000 – paid in five installments over two years – to transfer to and remain in schools with much lower average test scores.

The study found that the bonuses clearly succeeded in attracting high-performing teachers.

Fully 88 percent of vacancies in the lower-performing schools were filled by the high-performing teachers who had been identified as eligible candidates for the transfer bonuses. Researchers noted that 81 vacancies were filled from a pool of more than 1,500 top-performing teachers.

The study also found that teachers who received the bonuses tended to leave the low-performing schools after the payments ceased at about the same rate as other teachers.

During the two-year bonus-pay period, the retention rate was 93 percent. After two years, it dropped to 70 percent.

The more-than-200-page study, completed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and Mathematica Policy Research, was released last week and is available online at by searching on the formal title, “Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers: Final Results from a Multisite Randomized Experiment.”

The study found that math and reading test scores in targeted elementary classes improved by 4 to 10 percentile points. It found no evidence of improvement for middle school classes.

New Mexico Public Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera on Monday said the study’s findings are “really encouraging, an affirmation of where New Mexico is in its priorities.”

She said it is no secret that she and Gov. Susana Martinez support the notion of higher pay for better teachers. “We need to champion and reward success,” Skandera said. “It’s high time we reward and acknowledge great teachers.”

She declined to say if the administration would pursue a merit pay initiative during the upcoming legislative session, but she strongly hinted that such an initiative would be forthcoming in the not-too-distant future. The newly implemented teacher-evaluation program is the first step in that direction, she said.

“We’ve been very clear that we believe in rewarding great teachers,” Skandera said. “You can count on us pursuing (that). Stay tuned.”

A good teacher can make a difference of between six months and two years of academic improvement for students, she said. She did not respond to a question about the finding that 30 percent of the teachers left the low-performing schools after they had received the bonus pay. Nor did she comment on the large pool of good teachers needed to fill positions in the under-achieving schools.

Educators’ critique

Although the secretary-designate was encouraged by the findings, others disagreed. A teacher at one of Albuquerque’s toughest middle schools said that while the idea of a $20,000 bonus might be “intriguing for the teachers getting the extra pay, in the final analysis it wouldn’t make much of a difference” unless the merit-pay period were extended.

Initially, said John Simms, who teaches at Harrison Middle School in Albuquerque’s South Valley, when a master teacher comes to a school, everyone else tries a little harder – a phenomenon called “social capital.” But when master teachers begin leaving a school, the message to students and their families is profoundly different, he said.

“These communities are used to being abandoned or ignored, and now, at this point, they’re ‘hyper-ignored.’ The teachers came in, and did all these great things, raised the kids’ hopes, and then left.”

The underlying problem lies not with teachers, Simms said, but with “grinding poverty” that causes children who grow up in impoverished areas to suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. “A soldier eventually can leave the battlefield,” he added, “but a kid can’t leave his neighborhood.”

The result is that “you have 11-year-old children having sex; kids walking around with water bottles filled with vodka; cocaine.”

One teacher who would qualify as a transfer under the study’s guidelines is Jeff Tuttle, a Golden Apple educator at Monte Vista Elementary School in Nob Hill with a Tier III – master – rating. The closest correlation to student test scores is their socioeconomic status, and not the rating a teacher is given, he said emphatically. While teacher transfers – a phenomenon he called “cross pollination” – and the resultant expertise could be potentially beneficial, there is a community aspect to schools that separate them from other industries, he said. Studies like the current one fail to consider community, he said.

“I’ve been at Monte Vista for 22 years,” Tuttle said. “Monte Vista is where my daughters went to school. I taught other teachers’ children. They taught mine. Here, the students and parents and teachers are a community – we celebrate each other’s moments.

“Mercenary teacher models might work for a little while,” he added, “but unless people find investment in the community, it won’t last.”

Like Simms, Tuttle pointed to poverty as the leading reason for poor performance. He noted that study after study has concluded that children from poorer households and communities develop academic skills more slowly than those from higher socioeconomic groups.

Mixed results

Four years ago, Albuquerque Public Schools embarked on a program to turn around two underperforming schools, Rio Grande High and Ernie Pyle Middle School. Part of the reform offered teachers an extra $5,000 annually.

In exchange, the teachers signed contracts, agreeing to extra teacher collaboration, training and work outside their normal school day. They also committed to a more open style of teaching.

As of early this year, the results were mixed. Test scores and the graduation rate at Rio Grande remained essentially unchanged. As of January, the graduation rate was 52.1 percent. Overall, 31.4 percent of students were proficient in reading, and 24.5 percent tested at grade level in math.

The picture at Ernie Pyle was a bit rosier. While reading scores were flat, hovering around 33 percent proficiency, math proficiency had doubled since the redesign began.

Writing in the Journal earlier this year, Superintendent Winston Brooks said that while the graduation rate at Rio Grande remained much too low, it was up 2.5 percentage points over the previous year. Perhaps more important, he said, “What APS did at Rio Grande and Ernie Pyle – schools that have underperformed for decades – was revolutionary. By changing the structure of operation in those schools – including collaboration, administration, and yes, pay – we went about reform never before attempted in New Mexico.”

Last year, APS added Emerson Elementary school to its list of “turnaround” schools. Instead of a $5,000 bonus, teachers there are paid for working an extra five days pay per year and an extra hour every day.

Emerson’s school grade rose from F to C in one year, spokeswoman Monica Armenta said. Moreover, she said, there was a gain of 7 percentage points in reading scores and 10 points in math.