File photo of teacher in classroom. (July 31, 2012)

File photo of teacher in classroom. (July 31, 2012) Credit: File Photo

Teacher merit pay. It's one of those perennially popular policy ideas that, historically, hasn't worked very well.

A few years ago, New York City offered teachers in select schools $3,000 if the entire school's test scores went up. But scores at the merit pay schools did not improve any faster than scores at control schools. (In some of the merit-pay schools, scores actually went down.) In Nashville, teachers who volunteered for a merit pay experiment were eligible for $5,000 to $15,000 in bonuses if kids learned more. Students of those teachers performed no better on tests than students in a control group.

And in Chicago, teachers were paid more if they mentored their colleagues and produced learning gains for kids. Again, students of the merit-pay teachers performed no better than other kids.

That's why the results of a new study, the Talent Transfer Initiative, financed by the federal government, are so important. Surprisingly, this experiment found merit pay can work.

In 10 cities, including Los Angeles, Miami and Houston, researchers at Mathematica identified open positions in high-poverty schools with low test scores, where kids performed at just around the 30th percentile in both reading and math. To fill some of those positions, they selected from a special group of transfer teachers, all of whom had top 20 percent track records of improving student achievement at lower poverty schools within the districts, and had applied to earn $20,000 to switch jobs. The rest of the open positions were filled through the usual processes, in which principals select candidates from a regular applicant pool.

If a transfer teacher stayed in her new, tougher placement for two years, she'd earn the $20,000 in five installments, regardless of how well her new students performed. In public education, $20,000 is a whopping sum, far more generous than the typical merit pay bonus of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.

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.

That suggests teacher bonuses paired with efforts to keep respected, committed principals in low-income schools could truly improve instruction. In recent years, our school reform debate has focused almost obsessively on the individual teacher within the classroom. In reality, a school's working climate - the complex interplay between a principal and teams of teachers - matters just as much.

In a world of limited budgets, what does this new research tell us about how to allocate education spending? Notably, the middle school teachers who participated in the Talent Transfer Initiative did not outperform the control group. It was the elementary school students who saw the impressive gains. This is yet more evidence that the most powerful education interventions happen in early childhood.

The researchers concluded that lowering class sizes - a frequently suggested reform - could be less cost effective, in terms of raising student test scores, than transferring great teachers to struggling elementary schools. Here, however, we should be cautious. Teachers hate - and I mean hate - larger classes, so efforts to recruit good teachers to low-income schools will probably be more successful if transfer teachers are guaranteed not to be overwhelmed by higher head counts.

In short, we should listen to what teachers are telling researchers about their preferences: Class sizes should be reasonable, and principals matter. But money matters too. Showing great teachers how valuable they are, by paying them more and asking them to take on the most challenging assignments, can potentially improve results - a lot.

Dana Goldstein is a New York-based journalist, a fellow at the New America Foundation, and a fellow at the Nation Institute.

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