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Bonuses aren't attracting teachers to low-income schools, UW researchers find

Hundreds of public school teachers in Washington are working toward their National Board certification, a highly rigorous program. Some, like Seattle School teacher Drea Jermann, pictured in 2009, teach in schools termed "challenged."
Gary Davis
Hundreds of public school teachers in Washington are working toward their National Board certification, a highly rigorous program. Some, like Seattle School teacher Drea Jermann, pictured in 2009, teach in schools termed "challenged."

Money is not enticing Washington’s top teachers to move to low-income schools, according to University of Washington researchers. They studied a state program that gives bonuses to teachers who go through a rigorous evaluation process called National Board Certification.

Supporters of the program, however, say it's successful because more teachers at struggling schools now have the high level proficiency endorsement.

Katie Taylor, a National Board Certified teacher and instructional coach at Clover Park High School in Lakewood, says she's seen a big difference at her school since 10% became National Board Certified. Clover Park is considered a "challenging" school to teach at because more than two-thirds of students qualify for free and reduced lunch and many have special needs

“I have watched the stability of our teaching staff improve, we’ve also had our graduation rates improve and some of our assessment scores have improved." she says. "I see a strong correlation between that and the fact that we've had more teachers pursuing and attaining National Board Certification."

The certification program has become wildly popular in Washington, especially since state lawmakers gave teachers an added incentive to complete the program in 2007. According to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the state now has 5,232 board certified teachers, the fourth highest number in the nation.

Any teacher who achieves the standard gets an extra $5,000 a year. Teachers at schools deemed “challenging” based on the number of students receiving free and reduced-lunch get an extra $5,000 on top of the base bonus.

State leaders thought the extra money might lure quality teachers to struggling schools. Terry Bergesen, then superintendent of public instruction, spoke in support of legislation to create the bonuses:

"We hope that these teachers will move to our highest poverty schools, and we think they will greatly help the students in those schools," she said in 2007.

That hasn’t really happened, according to a new brief by the Center on Reinventing Public Education. It shows that fewer than one-percent of board certified teachers a year transfer to high-poverty schools. Betheny Gross, a senior researcher at the center, says if the goal was to give low-income schools more resources to attract top teachers, the program hasn't worked:  

“While the bonus system was fairly effective at getting a lot of teachers to seek and earn the National Board Certification, the additional bonus was not able to compel them to take their skills to these high needs schools,” she says.

Backers of the program disagree with some of the findings, pointing to reports that contradict the new brief. They also say the intent of the legislation wasn't to get high quality teachers to move. Jim Meadows, instruction certification and higher education specialist for the Washington Education Association, says he thinks the program was more broadly conceived:

"That would be a piece of it that people might choose to move into a challenging school from a non-challenging school, but also that there is value in what we call "growing your own" National Board Certified teachers in challenging schools," he says.

Statistics show that nearly a-quarter of board certified teachers now work in high poverty schools, mostly because teachers who already worked there have undergone the process and because the number of high poverty schools increased after lawmakers changed the cutoff.

Whether as many teachers pursue the certification in the future, regardless of where they teach, could depend on what lawmakers do next. The governor has proposed suspending the program in the next budget to save money.

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.