Fulton offered top teachers $20,000 to transfer to struggling schools. Did it work?

Fulton’s ambitious pilot to pay top teachers $20,000 bonuses to teach in underperforming school didn’t pan out.
(AJC File)

My AJC colleague Marlon Walker had an interesting news story about the 1,400 teachers still needed to fill slots in metro Atlanta school districts.

He wrote:

Even amid a national teacher shortage of about 60,000 this time last year, and ongoing concerns with fewer people going to college to become educators, hiring teams have concentrated on aggressive hiring and a widened net for recruiting. School districts have worked to make the jobs more attractive to people, boosting starting salaries and offering signing and retention bonuses, as well as incentive pay for teachers who take assignments at problem schools.

But does incentive pay entice teachers to problem schools?

In 2014, Fulton County announced an ambitious plan to provide top teachers $20, 000 stipends to work in the system’s lowest-performing schools. At the time, the AJC reported:

No other system in Georgia offers such pay bumps tied to merit, which are aimed at awarding more money to teachers who elicit high achievement by their students. Fulton is part of a small but growing group of U.S. school systems bucking the long-standing educator pay system to put more focus on rewarding teachers based on standardized tests and other measures.

As part of the plan, Fulton would initially place up to 20 high-performing teachers in at least two elementary schools and one middle school that are under-performing. The teachers would be expected to stay at the school at least two years. To qualify, a teacher would be in the top 25 percent on Georgia’s new student growth measure, which is based on standardized test performance.

Fulton leaders say they’re modeling the plan off a recent study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education that looked at 10 districts in seven states that tried a similar program. The study found that with the teacher transfers to low-performing schools, test scores at the elementary level rose while those at the middle school level were mixed.

A year later, in 2015, the AJC checked on the progress of the Fulton pilot and found the district laboring to lure these highly qualified teachers to lower-performing schools.

The newspaper reported:

Although 375 were eligible to participate, only 32 applied, according to Eddie Breaux, a human resources staff director for Fulton schools. He said some of the teachers who did not apply said they believed teachers and principals would not support them. Many did not want to make longer commutes.

So what finally happened to the Fulton experiment? It faded away. The architects, former Fulton superintendent Robert Avossa and chief strategy and innovation officer Ken Zeff, are gone. Avossa is leading the Palm Beach County schools in Florida, and Zeff heads a new metro corporate and civic initiative to improve schools, Learn4Life.

Here is what Fulton Schools spokeswoman Susan Hale told me in an email:

Our Strategic Staffing Initiative was a relatively small-scale program (10 teachers in the first cohort, 7 in the second cohort, across three schools) that examined how we might incentivize high performing teachers to teach at high-needs schools.

Based on our experience after two years, we have been successful in some areas, and learned some useful lessons in other areas.

In terms of successes, we were able to attract effective teachers to high-needs schools, albeit on a small-scale. Additionally, the program had a positive impact on the resource allocation in schools, as participating teachers did not require as many supports and provided more mentoring to their peers, as compared to other teachers who were new to their schools.

Anecdotally, several of the participating teachers viewed their participation as “one of the best decisions” made in their educational careers and feel they have made a great impact on students’ lives.  This was a growth opportunity for many of the teachers as they later assumed roles like department/grade level chair, were selected for programs like the FCS Aspiring Leaders cohort, and even received promotions into roles where they expanded their impact by formally coaching other teachers.

However, we ultimately do not view this as a scalable model for Fulton County Schools at this time. Some of the reasons for this conclusion include the limitations of the tools used to identify high performing teachers (Student Growth Percentiles, TKES), the challenging geography of our district (the distance to schools for many potential applicants is too far), perceptions of school climate and culture by potential applicants, and perceived and real struggles of teachers fitting in at their new schools.

Hale’s reference to the limitations of tools to identify high-performing teachers is reflected in two new studies that found principals rate most teachers as “effective,” despite a national movement  to create more nuanced calibrations of teacher performance,

In reporting on the studies about the high scores still being accorded nearly all teachers, Education Week said:

And there’s good evidence that those scores are inflated: When principals are asked their opinions of teachers in confidence and with no stakes attached, they’re much more likely to give harsh ratings, the researchers found.

That’s in part because principals want to maintain good relationships with their teachers, which can be tough to do when they have to confront them with bad reviews, the researchers say. For some principals, though, the hesitation to give low scores is a product of being strapped for time.

“It’s very, very time-consuming to document poor performance,” said Marilyn Boerke, a former principal who is the director of talent development for the Camas school district in Washington state. “At the end of the year, if you haven’t repeatedly gone into the classroom and given the teacher suggestions for improvements, it’s not really fair to give a poor evaluation.”

Despite Fulton’s experience and that of other systems around the country, districts are still dangling bonuses in front of teachers to draw them to tough schools. Last year, the Pinellas County school system in Florida announced it would pay teachers up to $25,000 more a year to teach at low-performing schools in St. Petersburg. (The teachers would also have to attend training, work a longer school day and teach in a summer program.)

Even the feds had few takers when it proffered $20,000 to 1,500 highly effective teachers in urban districts if they would transfer to a high-poverty school. Less than 25 percent expressed interest.

Writing about the reluctance of teachers to jump schools even for hefty bonuses, the Atlantic noted: 

The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country’s most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute.

Your thoughts on how to get good teachers into struggling schools?

 

Reader Comments 0

44 comments
zekeI
zekeI

And do not forget the absolute lack of discipline in those schools, for that matter IN ANY SCHOOL TODAY! WHO WOULD WANT TO SUBJECT THEMSELVES TO SUCH BULL EXCREMENT?

JK1951
JK1951

I've been told, by teachers, that it's common for the underachieving students to rotate in and out of various schools and school systems due to changes in the living arrangements of their parents. They may live with a "friend", an aunt, a grandmother or in an apartment all in one year. The result is that a large number of students that started in a class are not the ones there at the end. How do you propose to grade a teacher on the performance of these kids?


RSCanton
RSCanton

I worked in the front office of a "struggling school" in south Fulton County for 10 years. I was surrounded by teachers who were dedicated and worked much harder than the ones who taught my children in affluent Fayette County. Test scores should be thrown out the door. Saying that every child should end up on grade level by the end of the school year is ridiculous. These kids have too much against them going in. These students and schools have to be judged on progress. When a teacher can take a class from the 10th percentile to the 21st, now that's progress. 

HokeSmyth
HokeSmyth

Grade inflation: I think the colleges have more grade inflation than high schools.  Years ago, the "gentleman's 'C' was perfectly acceptable.  Now the all-student, all-mens, and all-womens GPA have flown way above a 'B' (3.0 on a 4.0 system).

Beach Bound2020
Beach Bound2020

So I think about the collegiality aspect.  "High performing" teacher comes into said under performing school, joins say the 5th grade and is one of 6 teachers on that grade level.  Five of them have been working their butts off for years and years dedicating countless hours implementing countless initiatives.  But new teacher from one of those "good" school comes and she makes $20000 more to do the SAME job the others have been doing for years. Yeah, I see some resentment there. Not sure I'd want to walk into that setting for any amount of money. And not certain I'd blame the other long time teachers for feeling resentment.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

" reasons why  ... plain old racism and classism ... higher principal turnover ... schools with the most poverty ... focus on standardized test prep ... how to get good teachers into struggling schools"  


Buwahahahaha!!!  This mulish obtuseness reminds me of an NPR story years ago which puzzled over the relative lack of children in San Francisco, and considered EVERY possible reason under the sun except for the obvious answer that, when SF couples engage in intimate relations, a substantial percentage of them have exactly ZERO probability of conceiving a child.  


Anyway, ain't nothing wrong with "the schools".  The simple fact is teachers want to teach children who mostly live in stable home environments where education is valued and  come to school ready to learn.


One hit wonder
One hit wonder

If local school systems, state and feds would dig deeper into failing schools they will see it is a SOCIAL problem!  You cannot teach a child doesn't come to school.  Compound that with lack of parental participation (perhaps because they are working multiple jobs or night shifts), discipline problems, poverty, etc. you have children that will not have a chance in hell.  So very sad that the problem is not recognized for what it truly is.

jgcair
jgcair

The money is a nice touch, but I believe autonomy would be the biggest draw. Free the teachers from mundane paperwork and imposed procedures. Provide any resources they request. Give them a slightly lighter load, fewer students, increased planning time, and a paraprofessional. Also guarantee that disruptive students would be removed from their classes. Allow them time off to attend professional development. Use the money that would have been paid as a bonus to pay for these extras. It would be necessary to be aware of jealousy and other impacts on the culture among the teachers in the school. Given these perks, almost any teacher in any school could be highly effective. Oh, wait, isn't this what we want to achieve?

BRV
BRV

Have any of these programs ever worked anywhere in the US? I'm not aware of any. People quite rationally avoid taking jobs in which their chance of success is known to be low. Teachers know that they'll be judged harshly if they don't perform miracles and magically raise the academic achievement of low-income students to that of higher income students. It costs a lot more than 25k to get people to willingly sign up for public criticism and a general sense of failure, especially for a low status job such as teaching.

Christie_S
Christie_S

Which schools participated in this program, does anyone know? Are they part of the Achievement Zone area? 

Kathryn Tanner
Kathryn Tanner

The success of those "high-performing" teachers no doubt based on those flippin' test scores. When the same teachers have to deal with a different group of kids, already identified as "struggling," of course the scores will go down and those high-performing teachers are suddenly not so great any more. Not the teacher's fault! And for most teachers, it's not about more money; it's about being treated decently and being given some credit for knowing what they're doing.

Soph Mott
Soph Mott

Why not pay a bonus to teachers who increase performance at the at risk schools? Or why not provide the much needed support with the 'savings' of $400,000?

Lashanda Fields-Nelson
Lashanda Fields-Nelson

I use to teach at Dunwoody ES on the north end of Dekalb before jumping ship and going to the south end of Fulton. My current school is underperforming and has been for years. We work our butts off to make sure our kids excel. And no, I was never offered the incentive. The schools on the south side need more funding and teachers and administrators who actually care. They already have it hard at home. Some of the initiatives that are in place at schools in the achievement zone are ridiculous. I've never seen so many things implemented in one year. Principals that have no idea what the heck they are doing is hindering the learning environment also. Principals that are petty and vindictive are hindering the it too. The county needs to actually go to the schools and speak to the educators to get the real deal on what's affecting them.

Dee Douglas
Dee Douglas

They already know, but rather turn a blind eye.

Kaycee Norman
Kaycee Norman

You said that. If proper training and support was given as well as parent account ability then maybe it wouldn't be such a large teacher turn over.

hydropsyche
hydropsyche

The solution to high-poverty schools is simple: we shouldn't have any.  Pursue true socio-economic integration of the schools.  That would likely require combining Fulton and Atlanta together and then drawing lines that actually make sense instead of carefully drawing lines to concentrate poverty while making other schools majority wealthy.

Sienna Nichelle
Sienna Nichelle

"Your thoughts on how to get good teachers into struggling schools?" They are already there! Working in struggling schools, longer hours, the exact same pay, teaching students with major deficits, and still making gains.

Lashanda Fields-Nelson
Lashanda Fields-Nelson

Yes, I agree. We are there working longer hours due to the county mandated extra minutes.

Swedish House Mafia
Swedish House Mafia

It's garbage in, garbage out at these under performing schools.  Until things get fixed at home, these kids won't have a chance at life.  

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

I would venture a guess and say the issue with these "struggling schools" is more a behavioral issue than anything.  Until you have the backbone to address that issue, little else will matter.

Christie_S
Christie_S

@Lee_CPA2 There's some of that, of course, but IMO, the biggest factor the struggling schools deal with day in and day out is the learning deficit these kids start school with.  Classroom behavior problems tend to develop when the student experiences repeated academic frustration. Language deficit is a major cause of academic difficulty that leads to frustration in the critical early years . 


Here's a link to what Kindergarteners are expected to know on the first day: https://www.ortingschools.org/Page/391 

Many students that begin school in struggling areas are already behind when they walk in the door. Poor spoken language/vocabulary skills at the beginning of kindergarten means they struggle with language development throughout K and 1st grade. Those deficits are very difficult to overcome. Poor spoken language skills leads to poor reading skills. We all know what poor reading skills does for a student.


Now, what we can do about it is outside my paygrade, but what we can't do is ignore it.

Lilliana Cornelian
Lilliana Cornelian

"Top teachers" but not proven as such? Seems dishonest or like a misnomer.

Roxanne Purcell
Roxanne Purcell

This last paragraph--"few of the best teachers were willing to work in high poverty schools"--ugh. This is everything that's wrong with how we assess teachers and schools and educational achievement in America, all wrapped up in one little sentence.

Jessica Whitehead
Jessica Whitehead

Which is why we need to stop tying test scores to teacher salaries.

Another comment
Another comment

Look even Avossa fled to a much higher overall income district in Palm Beach than Fulton!

Starik
Starik

@Another comment Fulton is two very different systems, as much as 70 miles from each other, separated by another completely different school system system.
 Makes no sense.

Dozi Whit
Dozi Whit

Everyone looks like a powerhouse at an affluent school. When this measure was proposed we laughed. I remember going from South Co to North Co and thinking to myself "that's it?" "They are the best and that's ALL they do? My south county co teachers could teach circles around these folks. \U0001f602\U0001f602\U0001f602\U0001f602

Shanna Reed Miles
Shanna Reed Miles

Our teachers get kids to pass the state exams when they've missed over 30 days. That's a month of instructional time and these teachers would never show up on anyone's top list given the measures they evaluate teachers on. Teachers in those struggling schools work miracles. The governing bodies just don't want to admit they've got to put money into city programs for parents and neighborhoods if they want to see movement in kid performance. The school can't fix city problems.

Dozi Whit
Dozi Whit

You used the correct phrase: **MIRACLE WORKER**

Starik
Starik

If teachers have to commute from North Fulton it would be miserable. If they have kids in school they won't them to move to South Fulton schools. Spouses may have jobs in North.

Chanda RobertsWhite
Chanda RobertsWhite

It is not always about the money. It is about being supported and appreciated. I believe being supported was one of the reasons stated in the story.

Ty Jones
Ty Jones

So those teachers that's already in those tough schools don't need the support and to feel appreciated?

Chanda RobertsWhite
Chanda RobertsWhite

Ty Jones that is not what the story is about. However, if you must find fault or something to disagree with, find another comment to troll. BUT just in case you did not understand, support and appreciation are important components to anyone who has a job/career; not just for the 17 teachers who actually worked this special program.Have a wonderful week.

Evonna Dunn Bruner
Evonna Dunn Bruner

Chanda RobertsWhite, you have a very valid point. ALL teachers need to feel supported and offering other teachers to go where, more than likely, the morale is already low is taxing on a person professionally and personally. You can offer $100k and it still wouldn't be worth.

time for reforms
time for reforms

It should be common sense that the most successful teachers are reluctant to leave the scene of their success. Or to leap into the unknown.

And I would further argue that the time has passed for opposing parental choice in favor of dubious experiments such as the above.

Ty Jones
Ty Jones

Nope it didn't work, they went back to the north side and one even didn't even last a whole semester and gladly gave the money back!!

mgiles06
mgiles06

So what is missing from the school system is WHY it didn't work. Or was this like so many attempts in education to throw jello against the wall to see what sticks?

Steps of the Scientific Method

Make an Observation. Lower performing schools need more higher qualified teachers

Form a Question. Could we attract highly qualified teachers by offering bonuses

Form a Hypothesis. If Fulton County offers eye-popping bonuses, it will entice good teachers to go move to lower performing schools.

Conduct an Experiment. ...

Analyse the Data and Draw a Conclusion.

I see a few steps missing here. This is what's wrong with education experiments.