In the process, a remarkable thing happened. The transfer teachers significantly outperformed control-group teachers in the elementary grades, raising student achievement by 4 to 10 percentile points — a big improvement in the world of education policy, where infinitesimal increases are often celebrated.
Perhaps even more importantly, the transfer teachers stuck with their new jobs. Over 90 percent remained in the high-poverty schools while the bonuses were being paid, and 60 percent stayed on after the experiment ended. That means the transfer teachers were about 20 percent more likely than other new teachers (those ineligible for the bonuses) to commit to working in a low-income school. That’s an important finding, because other recent research shows that in schools with high teacher turnover, student achievement suffers.
It’s also worth pointing out that these transfer teachers were far from the Teach for America archetype of a young, transient Ivy League grad. Their average age was 42, and they had an average of 12 years of experience in the classroom. They were also more likely than control group teachers to be African-American, to be homeowners, and to hold master’s degrees. In short, they were stable adults with deep ties to the cities in which they worked.
The good news is that the Talent Transfer Initiative shows a significant pay raise can move good veteran teachers to struggling schools and keep them there. The bad news is that less than a quarter of the 1,500 effective teachers asked to participate in this experiment chose to apply.
Why? There is a lot of research on teacher preferences, and what we know is that pay ranks pretty far down the list. A McKinsey study found that a respected principal was a more attractive draw for teachers than larger salaries. Yet the persistently failing schools targeted by this experiment and others often have constant administrative churn; at one South L.A. high school, Crenshaw, there were five principals and 24 assistant principals in seven years. When veteran teachers consider where to work, they are aware of the reality of low-income schools with chaotic work environments.