Why Can’t Money Buy Good Teachers?

Jillian Schneider | June 20, 2023

(The Lion) — Local and state school officials are offering hefty signing bonuses – as much as $50,000 – to combat the nationwide teacher shortage.

Despite efforts in places such as New Jersey, South Carolina and Oklahoma, research shows such measures are ineffective.

For example, Minnesota allocated $400,000 in incentives for 41 teaching positions in 2021, but the program only attracted six teachers, four of whom weren’t even qualified to receive a bonus.

In 2012, the National Education Policy Center researched teacher retention and discovered that money mattered far less to educators than having good leadership and a healthy work environment.

“Large-scale studies and teacher testimonies suggest that working conditions are far more important than bonuses in persuading teachers to stay or leave their classrooms,” NEPC wrote.

It referenced a failed program from South Carolina where an $18,000 bonus only attracted 200 teachers in three years – less than half the educators needed.

“Deterrents included location, lack of administrative support, poor working conditions, and a need for better preparation,” NEPC added.

A smaller 2004 study of rural teacher recruitment found similar results. Only 5 out of 13 (38%) Arkansas teachers stayed in their program long enough to receive a full bonus, which was spread out over four years.

Even when bonuses successfully incentivize teachers to stay at a school, those benefits only last as long as the bonuses do.

James Shuls, director of research and fellow of education policy at the Missouri-based Show-Me Institute, likened short-term incentives to “shuffling the deck chairs of the Titanic.”

“Short-term or isolated bonuses don’t impact the overall profession,” Shuls told The Lion. “They just might attract more people to a specific location.”

When the U.S. Department of Education studied how to encourage high-quality teachers to transfer to low-performing schools, it reached the same conclusion.

A transfer incentive did appear to help fill vacancies and even improve test scores. But once the bonuses stopped, the high-quality teachers were just as likely to leave the school as any other teacher.

That means teacher retention problems aren’t likely to be solved with signing bonuses, even if the bonuses last for several years.

“The evidence is clear,” NEPC concluded. “Financial incentives alone are insufficient for improving school excellence and attracting qualified teachers to low-performing schools.”

Similarly, a survey of National Board Certified Teachers revealed that “strong principal leadership, a collegial staff … and a supportive and active parent community” are stronger incentives than money.

The problem is that good leadership, a healthy environment and supportive parents can’t be bought or legislated, Shuls says.

“School culture really matters,” Shuls told The Lion. “People want to work in a place where they feel valued.”

Yet, he added that the culture “often gets downplayed in the policy discussion because you can’t control school with a lever from a state capitol. You can’t just flip a button and make everyone have better school culture, but you can flip a lever, so to speak, and increase teacher pay.

“That’s not to say that teacher pay doesn’t matter at all,” Shuls concluded, “[but] you can’t downplay the role of school culture.”