Teacher bonuses are only part of the solution for troubled schools, experts say

Latoya Jordan, right, principal at Lacoochee Elementary in Pasco County, said the low-rated school would benefit more from added training, staffers and services than from bonuses.
Latoya Jordan, right, principal at Lacoochee Elementary in Pasco County, said the low-rated school would benefit more from added training, staffers and services than from bonuses.
Published April 4, 2016

Hoping for a turnaround, the Pasco County School District offered teachers $15,000 spread over three years to work at struggling Lacoochee Elementary.

This year, as the experiment expires, superintendent Kurt Browning is ending the bonus, convinced it didn't work.

Just to the south, Pinellas County school officials are headed in the opposite direction, proposing to ramp up an incentive pay program — including an increased retention bonus — at the district's five most embattled campuses. Teachers could earn an extra $25,000 each year.

"It looks like it will work for us," said Pinellas deputy superintendent Bill Corbett, who noted the pay is one piece of a larger initiative.

For more than a decade — especially since state and federal accountability rules set strict turnaround requirements — low-performing, hard-to-staff schools across the nation have sought the formula to attract and keep top teachers in their classrooms.

The extra money has proven a powerful inducement to generally underpaid educators, districts have found. To pretend otherwise is unfair, said Nicole Simon, a research affiliate at Harvard University's Project of Next Generation Teachers.

Hillsborough County, for example, has offered teacher bonuses for years in certain schools, though the total amounts are smaller than those at Lacoochee or what Pinellas is considering.

"But money alone can't do what people want it to do," said Simon, who has conducted a comprehensive review of the research on teacher turnover in high-poverty schools.

Studies have shown that, in order to be meaningful, a signing bonus would have to be substantial enough to compete with other career options, she said. That said, she added, many teachers in high-poverty schools don't take the jobs for the money.

They say they entered those schools because they want to work with the students and their many needs, Simon said. "But they leave when they can't accomplish their mission."

A decade of research shows "social working conditions are the things that matter for teachers way above and beyond pay," she said.

Those include having adequate classroom resources, professional support, after-school programs and social services for students, explained Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"Having an effective teacher in the classroom is a major step in the right direction," said Domenech, a former superintendent of Fairfax, Va., schools. "But is it the only solution? No, it is not."

Domenech and Simon suggested that, if schools have enough money to spend on large bonuses, they might first consider purchasing other necessities that will improve the school's working conditions and, in turn, attract the top teachers they seek.

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Top on each of their lists: Finding strong principals who have the expertise and ability to hire, help and nurture excellent teachers. Simon said her latest study of six high-poverty schools showed that teachers most valued principals who offered solid, frequent feedback and were not bogged down by demands outside the classroom.

Teachers at Lacoochee Elementary, who stand to lose the added pay they got by joining the school when it restaffed, said they "absolutely" agreed with those priorities.

"My wife and I moved to Dade City of all places for this community," said Daniel Vasquez, the school's graduation enhancement coach. "That's something a lot of our teachers have. They're here because they want to be here. They're not here because of the money."

Fifth-grade teacher Lisa Mazza noted that Lacoochee's students and their families have many needs beyond what the school can offer. She mentioned that more than 45 children and parents arrived at the school one recent afternoon seeking help after they had been evicted from their public housing and didn't know what to do.

"We see students in transition, students experiencing trauma. Yet we're still having to ask for services," said Mazza, who recently appealed to the Pasco County School Board to help Lacoochee. "We need to see the school district support those needs that serve the whole child."

One teacher who left the school after one year, getting just $2,500 of the bonus, also made the point that the money didn't drive her decisions.

"It was so extremely difficult to work there without the support from administration to the point I questioned whether I should be a teacher or not," said Briana Birch, who now teaches at a district middle school. "When the opportunity arose to leave for a different school, I took it without thinking. I never regretted my choice. Money was never the reason why I went or left."

Browning said he is looking for different ways to use the money that had gone to the bonuses. One idea he has floated would pay teachers an added amount if their students meet quarterly academic expectations — something he didn't consider initially.

But he wants something that will make a meaningful difference for the children in this school. And the differential pay didn't do it, he said, noting the school's teacher retention rate didn't improve and its performance on state tests didn't rise. Lacoochee, which faced state turnaround requirements after receiving D grades from 2011 through 2013, made an F in 2015.

Principal Latoya Jordan said she expected better this year. But she also said the school would benefit from added training, staff and services more than bonuses.

If additional support services and training are an issue, Browning added, those ideas will be on the table, too.

"We've got to take a serious look at the supports we offer to these schools," he said. "They can't look like every other school."

Pinellas County district leaders plan an expanded approach that extends well beyond the recruitment and retention bonuses, which they want to increase from the current starting level of $3,000.

The rest of the added salary that teachers in the targeted schools stand to receive would be tied to added work, said Corbett, the deputy superintendent. They'd be attending more training sessions, he said, and the school day would be 90 minutes longer.

They'd also have first choice to work summer and after-school programs, and have the opportunity to earn performance bonuses.

"We should pay them what they're worth," Corbett said.

He acknowledged, as the experts noted, that pay is only part of the battle to accomplish the goal of putting the most effective teachers and staff in front of the children.

"More important than the financial part, they have got to feel they have got all the support materials, all of the training, everything they need to feel successful," he said. Also, he added, "you cannot turn around a school if you do not have a highly effective leader."

The district's new transformation team will work on all those fronts, if the Pinellas County School Board approves the plan.

Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said he expected some teachers to jump on board "because it's a few extra bucks."

He said the hiring process would be key, because a teacher's past performance can't always predict the future at a different school. He also stressed the importance of dealing with the job satisfaction issues.

"We're all about getting more money for our teachers. It's a good practice to get teachers to stick around," Gandolfo said. "But if you don't support the teachers, it's just a temporary fix."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.