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Editorial: Teacher incentives should be refocused

Four years ago, the Washington Legislature adopted what sounded like a smart reform: reward teachers who pursue an enhanced certification and give them a cash bonus to work at the most challenging schools. The idea sprung from a 2006 survey of teachers in which 46 percent of respondents said they would be “very willing” to switch schools if given incentives worth $10,000.

So the Legislature passed a bill that paid teachers $5,000 for obtaining national board certification and another $5,000 for teaching at a “challenging school.” The idea was to help close the state’s chronic achievement gap between minority and low-income students and the rest.

The intent was laudable. The process looked promising. But thus far, the plan is not achieving its goals, according to a study conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

Less than 1 percent of the national board certified teachers have moved to a challenging school, which is identified as a school at which a certain percentage of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. Yet, the number of nationally certified teachers in the state has tripled since the 2007-’08 school year, and slightly more of these teachers left high-poverty schools than joined them in the final two years of the four-year study.

These statistics will surprise some educators who read in education journals about the increase in nationally certified teachers at challenging schools. But the study found two explanations for this: First, many newly certified teachers were already at these schools. Second, the number of schools that fell into the “challenge” category has expanded by 28 percent in the last two years. The list expands because schools that no longer qualify are grandfathered in.

In addition, nationally certified teachers aren’t more likely to stay at these schools than other teachers, according to the study, which was funded by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This contradicts a finding in a previous University of Washington study.

OK, so isn’t it a positive development that there are more teachers seeking enhanced certification, even if they aren’t switching schools in high numbers? The study states, “However accurate the certification process may be at identifying effective teachers, the process itself does not improve their effectiveness. The research evidence indicates that board certified teachers on average get the same student outcomes after receiving certification as before.”

In other words, they may be some of the best teachers, but certification and an extra $5,000 don’t necessarily make them better teachers.

This study ought to give legislators pause as they weigh Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to drop the bonuses over the next two years to help balance the budget. In the 2007-’08 school year, the bonuses totaled $10 million. In the 2012-’13 year, they are predicted to rise to $55 million.

If the program survives, it needs to be changed to ensure that students at truly struggling schools derive greater benefits.

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