How to attract (and retain) high-quality teachers

Florida State Representative Erik Fresen has a plan to attract high quality teachers to work in Florida schools. He would like to make the $44M “Best and Brightest Scholarship Program” a permanent fixture in the state’s budget. The program would pay teachers in years 1-7 of their career a bonus of up to $8500 if their SAT or ACT scores were in the 80th percentile for their test year and they are rated as highly effective by their school district.

As you can imagine, this is a controversial proposal. There have also been concerns that the plan may discriminate based on race or age. Teachers and their representatives have been vocal in expressing their frustration with the program. In this recent article however “Fresen defended the program Friday, saying he hoped those who oppose it appreciate his effort to attract high-performing college students as teachers.”

I absolutely appreciate his efforts to recruit highly qualified teachers to my chosen profession. Students and parents can only benefit from having highly qualified teachers in their classrooms. As a colleague, being surrounded by highly qualified teachers would give me a wealth of resources to improve my own practice. However, Fresen’s plan is NOT the way to go.

1. Research suggests that there is little difference between academic performance of students in college based on their SAT or ACT scores. In fact, many colleges are beginning to move away from test scores as a basis of admission in the first place.

2. There is nothing in the legislation that requires a teacher to stay in the profession. If a qualified teacher receives the bonus all seven years that it is offered, they can walk away with an additional $59,500 pre-tax dollars in their pocket. Does the state really have money to invest in personnel that have made no commitment to stay in the profession? And, should anyone realistically expect a teacher to stay for their eighth year after a $8500 pay cut?

3. The math doesn’t work. The average Florida teacher salary was $47,950 for the 2014-2015 school year. While the Bureau of Labor statistics lists the annual mean wage for all Floridians during that time as $41,820. Most new teacher salary scales begin around $36,000 so the $8500 bonus is a nice boost. However, this data includes positions that do not require the college degrees or licensing a teaching position does. And if a person was drawn to teaching based on the money alone there are many other positions with similar preparation requirements that pay substantially more money on average and over time.

Fresen is on the record saying “If you have a better idea, bring that to me.” Instead of trying to entice college students into the career, how about supporting existing programs that have been linked to student achievement and teacher retention?

Using the same $44 million the Florida legislature could do the following:

1. Fund the commitments the legislature has previously made. The “Teach In Florida” website was created to attract teachers to the state. The site lists the Dale Hickam Excellent Teaching Program as a recognition program created to pay bonuses to teachers who obtained National Board Certification (NBC) and those NBC teachers that mentored their peers. It also subsidized the fees teachers paid to obtain their initial certification. Many studies have demonstrated the positive effect of certification for teachers and students. In my own school district, NBC Teachers rank higher on written and value added data measures than non-NBC teachers   However, since 2008 the bonus program has not been funded and the fee subsidy was eliminated.

2. Distribute $10,476 to each of the 4,200 Florida public schools. Those funds could be used to pay for stipends to teacher mentors at every site. In my school district, mentors were found to be such a valuable resource for not just increasing teacher retention but improving teacher effectiveness that they are looking to expand those positions even as they dismantle the peer evaluation program. These mentor positions could also be limited to teachers that are highly effective.

3. Support Educators Rising. Educators Rising connects aspiring teachers in high school with peers and mentors that guide them through the teacher preparation process. The program is aligned with the National Board standards for highly accomplished teaching, and nurtures local talent within communities.

4. Develop teacher student loan forgiveness programs. Facing teacher shortages, many states have begun to offer student loan forgiveness for college graduates in public service occupations, including teaching.

4. Increase per pupil spending by $16 per student. That would bring our state funding within $1500 to the national average of $10,000 per student.

I appreciate that Rep. Fresen and the Florida Legislature continue to show their commitment to public education. However I, like many of my colleagues, think there is a better way. Investment in long-term solutions like those I mentioned don’t make for snappy sound bites but they do shift the conversation from unproven gimmicks to solutions that lead to positive, long-term impact for all our students. I hope FL Legislature will consider making these investments today to produce more of the Best and Brightest graduates tomorrow.

(Note: In the interest of full disclosure my SAT scores from Fall, 1992 were Verbal 510/Math 630. The 80th percentile scores for that same period were Verbal 520/Math 590. However, as a “Non-Classroom Teacher” I was not eligible for the bonus.)

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  • Joanna Schimizzi

    Thoughtful article

    Thanks Julie for your article on the work Florida is doing to elevate the teaching profession. You brought up a lot of great questions to think about. I think one of the most important points is going to be collecting data on what actually changes student outcomes. With all the data out there, it is important that we use that data to determine what the characteristics are of high-quality teachers who move students. Thanks for your thoughtful questions and suggestions. 

    • Julie HIltz

      Show me the money and data


      Absolutely agree. I don't know if you've followed any of this story to this point by the sponsoring representative Erik Fresen says he got the idea for the program after reading Amanda Ripley's "The Smartest Kids in the World." In the book Ripley points to research that high performing students around the world  have teachers that were in the top 1/3 of their graduating class. While this is true, what is overlooked are the facts that where this happens (specifically in Finland) there are also teachers that are allowed in to the teacher preparation programs from the middle and bottom of their class based on a variety of factors. I believe that Fresen is confusing correlation with causation. 

  • Mandy Irwin

    happy teachers = happy students

    Hi Julie,

    Thanks for the thought provoking article and I really admire your solution focused approach.  Firstly, I'm not a U.S teacher.  I teach primary students in New Zealand where I love coming to school and feeling inspired to experiment with new ideas and programmes. In essence the message appears to be that Florida's teachers are under-valued, possibly with a lack of knowledge and consequently leave their jobs?  I wonder what role student behaviour plays here too?

    Change needs to happen from the top down and focus on supporting teachers, mentoring teachers, little perks here and there.  If a teacher feels supported, happy in his/her job and inspired … this will not only reflect on student learning but on staff retention.  (my thoughts anyway).

    • Julie Hiltz

      Teacher Retention

      Attracting and retaining effective teachers is an ongoing struggle within Florida and across the US. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs has continued to decline as the demands of reform efforts has increased scrutiny on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes. What I have noticed in Florida, specifically in the last few years, has been a wide variety of reform efforts that have completely restructed the profession in a number of ways that have high stakes consequences for teacher and student performance. In and of themselves they are not all "bad" ideas, but they are as of yet unproven. 

      The frustration I, and many of my colleagues feel, is that there are many reform efforts that are taking place without teacher and/or parent input. Yes, our elected officials represent us by the nature of their position, but they are not being responsive to what the public is asking them to do.

      On the whole, teachers want to get better. We can't do that by spending all of our time in front of students. How do you know what you don't know if all you see is what you're doing? We need mentors, site based PD and time to collaborate and plan with colleagues. Time spent outside of the classroom isn't valued. There isn't enough money or support to pay teachers to do what they need to get better within the school hours, and if you aren't doing it for free at home at night or on weekends you're made to feel guilty.

      Parents and teachers want teachers to be held accountable. Timely administrative and colleague feedback and relationships with parents would do that. Unfortunately, we spend more time testing each student so districts can progress monitor growth easily and we can assign a VAM score to each teacher. Walk in to my classroom and you can see whether or not I'm doing my job. However, there's not enough time for that either.

      Not to mention our schools are underfunded. There is no "extra" $44m sitting around for us to spend in good conscious on signing bonuses every year. And what high school student (because that's when you take SAT/ACT) is going to go in to the College of Education with the hope that they'll be awarded a $10000 bonus every year if they get a job and if they are effective enough to keep it?

  • JessicaWeible

    I think your ideas for how to

    I think your ideas for how to use this money come from a lot of experience and reason. However, I think Fresen’s idea was meant as a way to incentivize young professionals who are the best of the best in terms of intelligence and work ethic so that they want to invest themselves in Florida schools. While some of your options, like #1 for example, incentivize highly qualified teachers to stay in the teaching profession, it’s not directly attracting these individuals to begin with. Your option #2 would involve compensating mentors, which doesn’t work to attract these individuals at all, unless they have the goal of becoming a mentor themselves. I would say the only option that that might attract young professionals would be the student loan forgiveness, however that would incentivize everyone, not just the most qualified. 

    Now, if you want to invest in the teachers you already have in hopes of them becoming highly qualified through professional development opportunities and networks, then your options make sense. However, if you want to attract the kind of people who have already demonstrated a high level of preparation and readiness to tackle this job and you’re betting on their previously established work ethic and instrinsic motivation to lead them toward a highly qualified status, then you have to change your approach to get them in the door.

    I think salary is going to go a long way to incentivize new teachers. It’s a reflection of their value to the district. I can see a whole lot of veteran teachers getting mad about this and that is justifiable. I have 10 years teaching experience, which would preclude me from benefitting from this money (that and the fact that I don’t live in Florida). Therefore, I admit it’s important to focus on teacher retention as well.

    So it may be important to consider what the root of the problem really is. Is Florida having a hard time attracting good teachers or keeping good teachers? If it’s the latter, I would absolutely endorse your solutions over Fresen’s. But it’s about attracting teachers, then I think he may still have the best option.