Just like in real estate, the field of education can be boiled down to three words: location, location, location. Certain districts consistently score better than others. While there are no doubt many reasons that we can point to in order to explain the disparity between different districts, one factor is indisputable: teachers. Low-achieving schools tend to have a very difficult time attracting the most qualified teachers. After all, in addition to the academic weakness of the students, sometimes other challenges confront teachers in a low-achieving district, such as drugs or violence.
Is there a way to break out of the cycle? Is there a way to attract the best teachers to the lowest achieving schools?
The journal Education Week recently reported that a program, funded by the US Department of Education, attempted to do just that. The idea was to create a system which would draw the most experienced teachers, ones who already had track records of improving student performance, to lower-achieving schools. How so? What was the secret incentive? Another life lesson from real estate: Money talks. Under a program entitled the “Talent Transfer Initiative,” teachers were offered $20,000 to move from their current schools to substandard schools. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers concluded that the schools that hired these teachers saw significant improvement in academic achievement. Students raised their grades by 4-10% relative to their peers.
Some researchers welcomed the results of the study and emphasized the clear implication: talented teachers can succeed in a variety of different environments. This is indeed encouraging, as low-achieving schools can be confident that their struggles need not last forever; bring in the right people, and any school can be turned around.
However, the study also raised some serious concerns. Most people agree that teachers deserve to earn a higher wage, and the idea of granting a financial incentive seems like a good one. However, the program was offered to 1,500 relevant teacher candidates – and only 81 agreed to participate. That is a measly 5%. 5% of teachers were willing to transfer even with a $20,000 incentive. Apparently, even for a profession not known for its high salaries, there are some things more important than money.
Even if we could increase the percentage of teachers willing to transfer, the resources required to make this sort of program a widespread success seem unattainable. Who will fund these pioneering teachers? Who will pay the staff of bureaucrats to arrange all of the technical details? It sounds like a logistical nightmare.
It seems to me there is a simpler, yet more fundamental, answer to the problem of under-achieving schools. Rather than bouncing around excellent but reluctant teachers from one school to the next, let’s produce more excellent teachers. Instead of investing money in wooing that small number of excellent teachers to move to different schools, let’s create larger numbers of excellent teachers so that there are plenty to go around. Whether it’s modestly increasing salaries, improving working conditions, or enhancing professional development, there is so much we can do to increase the ranks of talented young men and women who serve as educators. It’s just one more lesson from the world of real estate: invest today to earn more tomorrow.