Do Bonuses For Teachers Lead To Math Test Score Gains For Kids?

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Low-performing schools in high-poverty areas struggle to attract and retain teachers. In a recent study published in the journal Economics of Education Review, researchers explored the impact of teacher bonuses on teacher retention and student test scores in math and reading.

Their focus? High-poverty schools in Tennessee. As part of a one-year pilot program, 473 teachers who were ranked as “highest-rated” based on state evaluation criteria and were working at “priority schools” were offered one-time, $5,000 retention bonuses with the stipulation that they stay at their schools the following year, a news release notes. (Priority schools were ones with the lowest percentage of students rated as proficient or advanced in math, reading/language arts and science in third through eighth grade.) The teacher evaluations were based on principal observations in class, student perception surveys, reviews of prior evaluations, and student test score growth.

The study explored the impact of those bonuses on both teacher retention and student test scores after one year. The results? Of the teachers who were offered the bonus, 321 of them stayed and 152 left, so the retention rate for those teachers for the school year for which the bonus was offered was about 68 percent. “While impacts on math scores were only marginally significant, students still scored higher in this subject area in the years following the bonus distribution,” according to the news release, which also notes that “priority schools that participated in the bonus program saw a significant improvement in reading test scores among students compared to similar non-participant schools in subsequent years, even after the retention bonus was removed.”

The extent to which a $5,000 bonus incentivized STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teacher retention is also uncertain, the news release notes. There are widespread shortages of teachers for these subjects and many teachers in these areas hold advanced degrees in their subject areas, so an offer of a $5,000 one-time bonus may not have been enough to promote retention of these teachers.

“As long as there are schools with high concentrations of racially and economically disadvantaged students, we must have a policy imperative to keep effective teachers from leaving these challenging—albeit rewarding—working environments,” according to the study. The “modest in magnitude” results “highlight the potential of targeted incentives as a tool for minimizing the harm caused by high rates of turnover among highly effective teachers in racially and economically isolated schools. Additionally, the findings support the hypothesis that even modest increases in the retention of effective teachers in low-performing schools, where turnover is high and replacement teachers tend to be less effective or less experienced on average, can measurably improve student learning,” the researchers added.

In an article about the study on Education Week’s Teaching Now blog, Walker Swain, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Georgia and lead author of the study, told article author Sarah Schwartz that implementing retention bonuses could cost less overall than the recruiting and training costs associated with high teacher turnover. What’s more, the retention-focused maneuver could also stabilize schools.

It amounts to an equity issue. “In Tennessee, low-scoring schools tended to serve students from low-income families and students of color, Schwartz wrote. “If you’re losing your effective, experienced teachers and replacing them with new teachers who get paid at a lower rate … then the amount of money that’s getting spent on these kids in high-poverty schools is less than the kids who are getting taught by the $60,000 teacher with a master’s and performance pay,” Swain told Schwartz.

This post is the third part of a project I’m embarking on exploring the different aspects of ensuring that every kid in the U.S. receives a quality mathematics education suited to their needs, aptitudes and interests. As I create additional posts for this series, I will include the links to them below.

Part One: “More Than A Perfect Score: When Are Kids Under-Challenged In Math?

Part Two: “Why Solving Fewer Math Problems May Actually Benefit Some Kids”

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