In a recent IOE London blog post, Professor Becky Francis highlighted wide and persistent gaps in GCSE attainment and university entry rates between rich and poor pupils. This follows the recent Social Mobility Commission report, which argued that policy makers have spent too much time on structural reforms to the schooling system and not placed a high enough priority on getting the best teachers into struggling schools, echoing Francis’ own research. Francis concludes that, in order to improve social mobility, we need to do much more to “support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods.”
In recent work, Rebecca Allen and I found that there are indeed reasons to be concerned about disadvantaged pupils’ access to good teachers. Experience (or lack thereof) is a good indicator of teacher quality. We found that pupils in the most deprived fifth of schools are around twice as likely to get an unqualified teacher, and a quarter more likely to get a teacher with less than five years of experience, when compared to pupils in the least deprived fifth of schools. Moreover, we found that, even within schools, disadvantaged pupils are more likely to be assigned to an inexperienced teacher.
Research from the US shows that pupils who get access to good teachers have higher attainment at school, are more likely to attend university and have higher adult earnings. This suggests that redistributing teachers would indeed improve the life chances of disadvantaged pupils. But is it actually feasible to redistribute good teachers using incentives? For such a proposal to work we need to be able to identify good teachers, attract them to work in disadvantages schools, and keep them there. What does existing evidence tell us about each of these three points?
A number of carefully evaluated initiatives from the US suggest that it is indeed possible to attract teachers to disadvantaged areas. The Talent Transfer Initiative offered teachers $20,000 spread over two years to move to the most disadvantaged schools in their district. Around 5% of the eligible teachers took up the offer. A similar policy in Washington State offered teachers a $5,000 per annum bonus and successfully increased the number of applications to work in disadvantaged schools.
There is also plenty of evidence to suggest that teachers working in disadvantaged schools can be incentivised to stay working there. In 2001, the North Carolina Bonus Programme offered shortage-subject (e.g. maths and science) teachers $1,800 per year to remain in disadvantaged schools and an evaluation showed that this reduced the probability of teachers leaving their school by around 17%. Careful evaluations of similar programmes in Florida and Georgia found similar effects.
But can we identify good teachers in the first place? The Talent Transfer Initiative in the US relied on statistical models to try and isolate individual teachers’ contribution to pupil progress, or “value added”. Teachers who ranked in the top fifth on this measure were eligible for the bonus. However the value-added approach relies on annual standardised testing to measure what pupils know when they enter a teacher’s classroom and then again when they leave at the end of the year. It also requires data linking individual pupils with their teachers. In England, we currently have neither. Lesson observations and teachers’ academic credentials have been shown to be unreliable and/or weak indicators of teacher quality, making them poor alternatives.
Unlike in the Talent Transfer Initiative, eligibility for the Washington State policy was determined by whether a teacher held an advanced teaching qualification awarded by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Research shows both that National Board certification is predictive of teachers’ having a higher value-added score and that randomly assigning students to teachers who scored highly on the qualification improves their attainment. However, certification itself is a fairly weak indicator of quality, which might explain why the Washington State policy had no impact on pupil attainment, whereas the Talent Transfer Initiative did have a small positive impact.
Using incentives to eliminate or indeed reverse the current inequalities in access to good teachers would therefore require us to develop reliable indicators of teacher quality. National Board Certification, along with other carefully validated teacher assessment tools such as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, demonstrate that this can be done. They can also be used to help improve the quality of teachers already working in disadvantaged schools. Nevertheless, attaching powerful monetary incentives to acquiring such qualifications does create the potential for abuse. Guarding against misuse and maintaining trust in such a system would therefore be another necessary condition of using teacher incentives to improve the life chances of disadvantaged pupils.