Since 2007, the state of Washington has tried to persuade more teachers to work and stay at high-poverty schools by offering them a $10,000 bonus — if they complete a rigorous, national certification program.
The bonus actually comes in two installments: $5,000 for any teacher who earns a certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and another $5,000 for teaching at a school that enrolls a significant number of low-income students.
Compared to other states, Washington has the third highest count of nationally certified teachers — 10,135 as of January — suggesting the bonus may have led more educators to complete the one- to five-year training program. And according to new research from the University of Washington, the additional $5,000 bonus for certified teachers who work in high-poverty schools has improved recruitment and retention efforts at those hard-to-staff schools.
"Salary really does matter," said Dan Goldhaber, director of the UW's Center for Education Data and Research.
In a paper published last month in the journal Economic of Education Review, Goldhaber and co-author James Cowan found that the incentive for certified teachers to work in high-poverty schools not only increased the share of teachers with the professional certificates. (They estimated a 4-to-8 percentage point increase after five years of making the bonuses available.)
Cowan and Goldhaber also looked at the likelihood that a certified teacher eligible for the extra money would leave their school in the following year. And they found approximately 31 to 41 percent lower turnover rates among those teachers.
Within a school, research has found that teacher quality is the most important variable in a student's success. But in a previous study, Goldhaber found wide gaps between where the more experienced and effective teachers teach and where low-income and underperforming students need the most help.
Goldhaber, however, argued his new research offers a solution to close those gaps.
"There is inequity in the distribution of teacher quality across students (but) salary is a policy lever that works," Goldhaber said of his new research. "Therefore, it seems like the implication is if you want to address the inequity, you ought to have a salary differential that favors teaching in disadvantaged schools."
But Andrea Gamboa, a social studies teacher at Foster High in Tukwila, said the state's bonus program made little difference in her decision to get her national certification in 2009. And it didn't convince her to stay at her school for 13 years running.
"When I think about the things that keep me at Foster, I don't know that the bonus is at the top of my list," Gamboa said. "I mean, it's helpful. I'm not going to lie: Teachers are underpaid and we work really hard.
"So does an extra $5,000 impact my decision to stay for the long run? No, I do this work for the kids."
Directly across the football field from Foster, algebra and journalism teacher Debbie Aldous found a bit more value in the bonuses.
She started working at Showalter Elementary in 2000 and credited the incentive for convincing her to renew her national certification two years ago.
"I'm not looking to leave Showalter," Aldous said. "But I'm 51 now, so I have maybe 10, 12 years left."
"I have to try to maximize what I can potentially make before I retire, so yeah, the bonus is something I definitely think about."