Highly-rated Tennessee teachers placed in chronically low-performing schools who received bonuses were more likely to stick around than teachers who did not receive bonuses, according to yet-to-be-published research from Vanderbilt University.

At a conference of the Education Writers Association in Nashville last week, Vanderbilt associate professor Matthew G. Springer, the director of the federally-funded National Center on Performance Incentives, shared findings from his research on the Tennessee Department of Education’s Signing and Retention Bonus Program. 

The research is part of an effort to study the education policies put in place in Tennessee after it received the federal Race To the Top grant in 2010, which included teacher incentive programs and new test-based evaluation systems.

“We have these reforms that came about through Race to the Top,” Springer said. “But are they sustainable? Are they working?”

The teacher bonus program, which was funded by federal School Improvement Grants, allowed schools academically ranked in the bottom five percent in the state to give $5,000 bonuses to teachers who earned the highest ranking on the state’s evaluation system. The program was an attempt to reduce the high rate of turnover among highly-effective teachers in chronically low-performing schools, Springer said.

Springer found that while the students the teachers who received bonuses worked with were similar, teachers who received the bonuses were 20 percent more likely to stay in their schools than those who just missed being eligible for the bonus.

At least one Memphis school leader says the findings align with her experiences.

Shelby County Schools principal LaWanda Hill said that teachers and students at her school, Caldwell-Guthrie, had benefited from the bonus program. “It all helps craft what we have here, which is a building of professionals,” she said. Caldwell-Guthrie was one of three schools in the district recognized for teaching excellence by the district’s school board earlier this year.

In the 2012-13 school year, 48 schools in Memphis, nine in the state-run Achievement School District, five in Hamilton County, four in Davidson County, and one each in Hardeman and Knox County used the bonus program. Eighty-three schools in all were on the state’s “priority list” of bottom five percent schools and eligible for the program.

Schools could also offer signing bonuses to teachers, but there were too few teachers who received those bonuses to study, according to the state’s education department.

Springer said teachers who earned level five rankings had scored better than 89 percent of teachers in the state. 

In 2010, Springer published research that found that paying teachers for student performance was not on its own enough to lift test scores. But, he said, those findings don’t contradict the most recent findings. “Incentive pay programs have a huge number of forms,” he said. 

Springer said decreased mobility of the best teachers will likely be good for students. He said having a level five teacher is correlated with higher test scores and even higher earnings down the line.

Springer also cited a survey that said that a growing number of teachers felt the state’s teacher evaluation system is fair. While in 2011-12, just 32 percent of teachers felt the system was fair, 69 percent said it was fair in 2012-13. 

The findings will be published later this year.