Yesterday’s announcement of the sites chosen by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the Intensive Partnerships for Teacher Effectiveness initiative is big news and instructive. Under the initiative, four sites serving more than 350,000 students will use grants totaling $290 million to implement bold plans to transform how teachers are recruited, developed, rewarded, and retained.
Evidence of broad-based support among stakeholders for tackling the challenge of implementing these plans played a key role in the foundation’s year-long competitive selection process. And though the selection criteria are not public knowledge, it’s likely the foundation sought something more concrete from applicants than letters of support from school district officials, school board members, and teachers’ unions.
So what kind of hard evidence would the foundation use to pick its grant recipients, and why does it matter?
One type of solid evidence would be the prior receipt by sites of Teacher Incentive Fund grants. Such grants—initially funded by the Department of Education in 2006—offer a way for school systems to experiment with teacher compensation strategies that aim to raise student achievement and close achievement gaps. These goals are typically frustrated by the traditional disconnect between teachers’ impacts on student learning and their compensation, and the underlying practice of paying teachers entirely on the basis of years of service and accrued postbaccalaureate credit.
Indeed, two of the four sites chosen for intensive partnerships, Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, FL and Memphis City Schools, have Teacher Incentive Fund programs. The Hillsborough TIF program targets bonuses to exceptionally effective individual teachers in high-needs schools, thus providing incentives for effective teachers to move to and stay in the schools that need them the most. The Memphis TIF program awards bonuses to all staff in schools with the largest achievement gains, and it fosters sharing of high-impact practices among teachers across schools.
The intensive partnership plan’s scope is more ambitious than the Teacher Incentive Fund, but Hillsborough County and Memphis have already tackled the sacred cows at the heart of the challenge. Their teachers, administrators, and board members have had difficult public conversations, they have enlisted local partners to help implement a competitive federal TIF grant, and they have the technology in place to estimate teachers’ impact on student achievement.
In selecting Hillsborough County and Memphis, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has signaled that sites for the Intensive Partnerships for Teacher Effectiveness initiative need a running start on transforming the job of teaching. The prominence of TIF sites in the initiative is also a ringing endorsement of President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2010 budget request of $487.3 million for the TIF program.
This endorsement also complements promising interim evaluation findings of various TIF programs. In Chicago’s program, for example, teacher retention is up and teachers report higher levels of support. Furthermore, these findings show no evidence of the canard often used to defend the teacher compensation status quo—that performance-based pay will lower morale by forcing teachers into destructive competition.
Congress faces difficult spending decisions, but Teacher Incentive Fund investments offer a way to catalyze change consistent with a central theme of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Race to the Top: to improve teacher workforce quality and encourage a more equitable distribution of teaching talent. Congress should take its cue from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and put more school systems in a position to follow the tracks of the intensive partnership sites by funding the Teacher Incentive Fund at or near the level the president requested.
Raegen T. Miller is the Associate Director for Education Research at American Progress.
More from CAP on the Teacher Incentive Fund:
Associate Director, Education Policy