Dr. Trip Stallings is the Director of Policy Research at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. Along with Dr. Jeni Corn, he heads up the evaluation of North Carolina's Race to the Top Initiative. 

Think recently spoke with Dr. Stallings about his latest findings about Race to the Top and the State Strategic Staffing Initiative. 

Tell me about your latest research on the Race to the Top-funded State Strategic Staffing Initiative. Did any of your findings surprise you?

The State Strategic Staffing Initiative was designed to encourage highly-effective teachers statewide to relocate to lower-performing schools. The initiative provided ten traditional Local Education Agencies (the state’s official term for a school district) with vouchers to use as recruitment incentives at their schools that historically had experienced the highest rates of teacher turnover. The annual amount of the voucher was $5,360, and it could be used for tuition towards Master’s degrees related to education, student loan payments, housing, or any combination thereof.

Our evaluation team members who followed this initiative (led by Dr. Cassandra Davis of the Education Policy Initiative at Carolina, which is based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) concluded that, while basic implementation of the initiative was in line with expectations, the initiative failed to meet most of its goals. Though budgeted to support over 180 teachers, only 26 teachers received the recruitment incentive over the life of the initiative, and only 17 of them remained in target schools in the 2013-14 school year.

While those numbers are no doubt disappointing for the state, they are not necessarily surprising; several previous attempts in North Carolina to use financial incentives to encourage teachers to relocate also have fallen short. One surprising finding for this initiative—and one that might provide some clues as to why programs like this struggle to meet their goals—was that none of the teachers eligible for the incentive who we interviewed indicated that they were aware of the existence of the incentive before choosing schools. In other words, there is little evidence that the incentive actually functioned as either a recruitment or retention tool.

In view of these challenges, what do policymakers need to keep in mind to create successful education policy?

As I noted earlier, the primary challenge to the success of this staffing initiative identified by participants and implementers was a lack of communication between LEAs, schools, and teachers. It is important to emphasize that this finding and the numbers of participants for this and for past state strategic staffing attempts do not necessarily mean that a state-level strategic staffing program cannot work; they simply suggest that policymakers should be aware that future efforts may need to include much more attention to—and support for—outreach and program administration before we can begin to get a better sense of the efficacy of the basic concept of state-level strategic staffing.

Where has the State Strategic Staffing Initiative had the most success?

While the small number of participants prevented us from estimating the direct impact of the incentive on student outcomes, several of the participating teachers and their principals suggested that the program may have started to contribute to their schools in other indirect ways. For example, some teachers and administrators noted improvement in their school culture, and they theorized that this might have been the result of the increased responsibilities administrators expected of their incentive recipients. In other words, because these teachers were receiving additional compensation, their administrators expected more of them in the form of services such as provision of support and professional development for peer teachers, or of higher expectations for the quality of their teaching.

Your research suggests that strategic staffing initiatives can have some short-term impacts on school culture. What about long-term impacts?

Our separate evaluation of the diverse array of local-level strategic staffing plans—plans developed at the LEA level that focused on localized solutions to teacher turnover in their hardest-to-staff schools, many of which were supported by Race to the Top funds—suggests that, given enough support and enough flexibility, some LEAs are able to come up with localized initiatives for encouraging strategic distributions of their teachers that may stand a better chance of having the longer-term impacts on student achievement that most people expect to see from such initiatives. As with so many initiatives in education, however, the most critical variable of all in such experimentation—time—is in short supply. Money for these experimental initiatives often runs out long before the time necessary to realistically expect to measure impacts on student achievement has elapsed.

What could lawmakers or school districts do right now, with teacher pay and staffing, that could make a difference in school culture in the short term?

I think the most important thing lawmakers can do is to provide more options and opportunities for local decision-making with respect not just to teacher pay but also to other staffing strategies that do not require changes in pay, such as variations in teacher roles and career development trajectories. The recent bill that adjusted base budget appropriations for 2014-15 calls for proposals from LEAs for local differentiation of teacher pay scales based on some measure of teacher effectiveness. While there are a lot of potential pitfalls in such programs, we really will not be able to work through those as a state without ongoing experimentation, and legislation like this makes such experimentation possible without negatively impacting base teacher salary.  Most importantly, legislation that encourages local experimentation allows LEAs the flexibility to design the programs that best meet their needs, instead of asking them to rely solely on a state-level model that may or may not be a good fit. The language of this particular piece of legislation limits to a large degree how an LEA can define teacher effectiveness, and it also limits to some extent the ways in which the LEAs can reward that effectiveness, but it is potentially a step in the right direction, I think.

How much of a role do teacher pay incentives play in recruitment and retention?

I think the honest answer to that question is that, unless the incentive is a phenomenally large one, the role varies from teacher to teacher, and also from incentive plan to incentive plan. Also important to consider is the number of other job options a teacher has in a given geographic area—in places where teaching positions are competing with dozens of other positions to get the attention of highly-qualified candidates, the incentive may be more meaningful than they are in places where teaching may be one of the best careers available. Variability like this further demonstrates the potential importance for local-level flexibility in the development and implementation of any future incentive programs.

How much of an impact do you think the new teacher salary schedule will make with respect to recruitment and retention?

That is hard to determine this early in the life of the new salary schedule. On the one hand, the changes will be immediately reflected in some of the signaling devices that novice teachers pay attention to, such as where North Carolina ranks relative to other states in new teacher pay, and I suspect that will make recruitment of novice teachers at least a little bit easier. On the other hand, lingering questions about the structure of the new salary schedule have left many veteran teachers unsure about how, exactly, their pay has been affected. They are getting a lot of mixed signals from the variety of advocacy groups who have been commenting on the new schedule over the summer. I think only after those veteran teachers have had some time to live with it will we be able to get a better sense of whether they will collectively consider the changes in the upper levels of the pay scale to be enough to stem the tide of experienced teacher turnover.

Do you think incentives would be more successful at the state level, or at the school district level?

Local-level plans appear to be more likely to have the desired impacts. Instead of simply opening the door to localizing incentives, however, the state may want to consider whether there is some middle ground—say, a semi-structured plan that allows some local flexibility but that also includes a way to vet and evaluate the success of local plans—that will work for most LEAs.

Click here to read more of Dr. Stallings's research.