Under-Performing Schools? This Might Just Work

An interesting new federal study, named the Talent Transfer Initiative, has indicated that a teacher earning $20,000 more to teach lower-income students performs better, and further improves the kids' academic performance, than they would without the extra funds. Here's how the actual initiative worked: teachers with a proven ability in improving student achievement in impoverished regions in 10 cities applied, and were accepted, to transfer to fill 88 percent of the vacancies in lower-income schools in 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston. In return for transferring, the would pay them $20,000 overall in five installments over two years.

What's the surprising part? The teachers would be paid no matter how well the students performed.

Here's are the results of the Talent Transfer Initiative.

In elementary schools, TTI had a positive impact on math and reading test scores. In middle schools, there was no evidence that the intervention raised test scores. Combining the elementary and middle school data, the overall impacts were positive and statistically significant for math in both of the two years that we followed up, and for reading only in the second year.

After the first year, when TTI teachers were still receiving payments for remaining in their schools, teachers in the TTI group returned to their schools at significantly higher rates than their control group counterparts, 93 versus 71 percent. After the second year, the payments had stopped, a majority of TTI group teachers were still in their schools.

High-performing teachers, under-performing kids? How is this any different, you ask, from Teach for America? (Which, in case you didn't know, has been getting lots of flack for a while now). The study's teachers are, in fact, the complete opposite of the stereotype of TFA corps members — these teachers average 42 years old and and have already had an average of 12 years teaching, as well as more likely to be African-American and hold a master's degree than the control group. They are anything but fresh-faced, beaming newly grads from prestigious schools using the experience as a résumé-padder for other careers, but know little about how to interact with lower-income minority students.

So, is this the solution? It sounds like a pretty good one: beyond the performance rates, the retention rates also tended to be pretty high. But there are still lots of concerns about TTI—for example, out of 1,500 qualified teachers that were asked to participate, less than 25 percent applied. Yes, $20,000 extra in pay is huge in the world of education, but other important factors for taking the job include sustainable class sizes and a respected principal, according to a McKinsey study.

Still, the results of the TTI experiment are heartening news. Merit pay as an viable idea hasn't been seriously considered for a while, since a couple of studies in the past few years indicated that it might not work. And TTI is based on an upgraded idea of merit pay to select amazing teachers who know 7th-grade biology inside out... which just might work to help that achievement gap.

Images: knittymarie/flickr,,