Do disadvantaged kids have equal access to great teaching? No. Given this, can a district policy that induces great teachers to transfer into distressed schools improve achievement? Yes. These are the findings of two new reports from Mathematica, released last week.

The first research study, “Access to Effective Teaching for Disadvantaged Students,” examined fourth through eighth grade test scores over three year spans across twenty-nine large school districts. Generally, the researchers found that low-income students experienced less effective teaching than their higher-income peers. The main culprit: the unequal distribution of effective teachers across school buildings within a district. In contrast, the analysts detected more equal access to effective teaching within a school building. Hence, there is little evidence to suggest that school-level principals systemically assign the least effective teachers to the most disadvantaged students.

The companion study, “Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers,” examined whether inducing great educators, via monetary incentive, to teach in disadvantaged schools can lift achievement. To obtain evidence, the researchers created an experiment—the Talent Transfer Initiative (TTI)—which they conducted in ten school districts across seven states. The study first identified the districts’ highest-performing teachers (top 20 percent in value-added) who were not in schools with low-achieving and disadvantaged students. Then, these teachers were offered a $10,000 per-year bonus for two years to transfer into a distressed school within their district. The study found that the transfer incentive had a positive, significant impact on elementary students’ math and reading test scores. The estimated impact moved the typical pupil up four to ten percentile points, relative to their statewide peers. (Caveat, though, the impact was detectable only in elementary classrooms not in middle school ones.)

Both studies relied solely on teacher value-added estimates, not that multiple measures of teacher effectiveness which the MET study recommended. That said, these studies highlight the oft-overlooked scandal of unequal access to great teachers and instruction for poorer girls and boys. Through a TTI-like remuneration policy that encourages great teachers to work in a district’s poorest schools—and rewards when they make big gains for their kids—district-level leaders could better deploy superb teachers into schools with the neediest kids.


 Eric Isenberg, et al., Access to Effective Teaching for Disadvantaged Students (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Education Sciences, November 2013).

Steven Glazerman, et al., Transfer Incentives for High-Performing Teachers: Final Results from a Multisite Randomized Experiment (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Education Sciences, November 2013).

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