A new study released this month by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) and Mathematica showed that transferring top elementary school teachers to low-income schools can help improve students’ performance. The problem is, even with monetary incentives, few seem eager to actually move.

The comprehensive study, which looked at large and economically diverse school districts, was designed to test the effectiveness of a strategy known in the ed reform world as “Talent Transfer Initiative” (TTI). Among other factors, it measured whether high performing teachers would move to low-income schools for two years if they were offered an additional $20,000 bonus.

Education reformers have looked to TTI as a way to remedy the growing resource and performance inequities between our nation’s best and worst schools, and to “professionalize” the teaching industry. Finding ways to reward top teachers is an integral part of many reformers’ vision of transforming the education field.

For this study, researchers presented 1,514 high performing teachers with the opportunity to consider transferring to a low-performing school for two years, in exchange for a $20,000 bonus. Participation rates were disappointing: 68 percent did not attend an information session and 78 percent did not fill out an online application. Ultimately, 88 percent of their target vacancies were filled, but clearly this points to some serious scaling challenges to this strategy.

In the past, TTI has been implemented in cities like Mobile, Alabama, Chattannooga, Tennessee and Palm Beach, Florida. These experiments compelled researchers to attempt to assemble a list of best practices, with regards to both timing and the scale of implementation. Researchers studied what kind of teacher was most likely to transfer and from where, as well as the intermediate impacts on students’ performances and test scores and teacher retention rates. They found that, in elementary schools, TTI teachers had positive impacts on reading and math test scores, although the evidence was sparser in middle schools. But if one combines the elementary school and middle school data, the impact was overall positive and statistically significant.

The study also drew some economic conclusions. They compared TTI to another popular proposed reform—classroom size reduction—and found that TTI was a cheaper alternative for comparable results. This was true at least in elementary schools, where they found it could save $13,154 per team, and in the long run even up to $40,000. Yet the evidence was mixed when exploring specific districts and middle schools, raising questions about whether it’s always more cost effective across the board.

Some suggest that the monetary incentive should be higher, or other incentives should be in place, to encourage more teachers to transfer to lower-performing schools. Teach For America for example, incentivizes college graduates not so much through money but by offering participants inclusion in an elite organization. Right now there is little prestige attached to TTI, just the $20,000 monetary bonus. Reformers might want to see if there’s a more distinct way to incorporate prestige; one can imagine this type of federal incentive packaged in the form of a special fellowship that includes elite conferences and training opportunities, meetings with and high recognition from state legislators, or even just seen as a nationally venerated program like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps.

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Rachel Cohen

Rachel Cohen is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former Washington Monthly intern.