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Denver teacher retention bonus didn’t work, study shows

A teacher kneels on a rug shaped like the globe while students sit in a circle around her.

Denver’s highest priority incentive gives bonuses to teachers who return to 30 identified schools.

Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Yearly $2,500 bonuses intended to keep teachers at Denver’s highest priority schools had no clear impacts on whether those educators stayed on the job, according to a study by University of Colorado Boulder researchers.

Nor did the bonuses attract teachers with higher effectiveness ratings to the schools, which serve a high proportion of students of color and English language learners, the study says.

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association commissioned the study as part of the agreement that ended a 2019 teacher strike in which pay bonuses were a major sticking point. For years, Denver had given teachers bonuses for a variety of reasons, including high student test scores and high teacher effectiveness ratings. 

During the 2019 strike, the teachers union wanted to get rid of the bonuses and use the money to boost all teacher salaries. District administrators wanted to keep them, especially the bonus aimed at retaining teachers in 30 highest priority schools.

denver highest-priority incentive schools

The 30 schools that get the highest priority incentive are:

Abraham Lincoln High School

Bear Valley International School

Bruce Randolph School

Castro Elementary School

Charles M. Schenck (CMS) Community School

Cheltenham Elementary School

Collegiate Prep Academy

Cowell Elementary School

DCIS at Ford

DCIS at Montbello

Goldrick Elementary School

International Academy of Denver at Harrington

Kepner Beacon Middle School

Knapp Elementary School

Lake Middle School

Manual High School

Marie L. Greenwood Academy

Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College

McGlone Academy

Munroe Elementary School

Noel Community Arts School

North High School

Northeast Early College

Oakland Elementary School

Place Bridge Academy

Schmitt Elementary School

Swansea Elementary School

Trevista at Horace Mann

West Middle School

West High School

As the two sides head back to the negotiating table this spring to determine the next contract, the results of the CU Boulder study show the bonus was a bust. But the study leaves open the question of what should replace it. The debate is being revived as the school board considers a policy change that would eliminate certain types of bonuses and make other changes.

The authors of the study note that in other states, larger bonuses than Denver provides have been successful at retaining teachers. The authors also suggested coming up with clearer criteria for which schools receive the highest priority bonus and better communicating with teachers their eligibility for the bonus and if they’ve received it.

If teachers “are not aware of the program, do not have buy-in, or are not notified when they receive those payments, potential program effects could be undermined,” the study says.

Sarah Thomas didn’t know about the highest priority incentive when she took a job teaching math at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College. Now that she gets the annual bonus, she said it’s a “very, very small” part of why she stays at her school. Though she uses it to pay for Christmas gifts and would be sad to see it go, she said “keeping it is not the hill I want to die on.”

Steve Smith, a special education teacher at Lake Middle School, also gets the bonus. He wants it to continue — at least until the most recent iteration can be studied. 

“Kids at these schools are used to people quitting on them,” he said. “If these kids know that you have been at their school for a few years, a lot of them automatically give you more respect.”

The most recent version of the highest priority incentive began after the 2019 strike and wasn’t included in the study. The dollar amount is now larger: $3,000 instead of $2,500, paid each fall in a lump sum to teachers who return to the 30 identified schools. But more important than the dollar amount, Smith and others said, is that Denver no longer offers competing bonuses for teaching at schools with high test scores. 

Those bonuses effectively canceled out the incentive to teach at high-needs schools, said union President Rob Gould. In some cases, teachers could earn even more money for teaching at high performing schools than at high needs schools.

“Our highly effective teachers in the lower performing schools would go to higher performing schools,” Gould said. “It was not equitable for students.”

The CU Boulder study examined the effectiveness of the highest priority incentive between 2016 and 2019, before the post-strike changes. The study was jointly commissioned by the district and the teachers union as part of their contract, with the stipulation that the results be used to determine whether to continue the incentive.

The researchers compared retention at the 30 schools where teachers received the incentive to retention at similar schools where teachers did not. They found no statistically significant difference, the study says.

The district and the teachers union are now back at the table to bargain the next contract, though Gould said they’re tackling non-monetary issues first. One question will eventually be what to do with the several million dollars now spent on the highest priority incentive.

Denver Public Schools declined to comment for this story.

But the union has several ideas, including increasing the amount of a similar bonus for teachers working at Title I schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families or expanding which teachers get a bonus for working in hard-to-fill positions.

A school board proposal written by board President Xóchitl “Sochi” Gaytán and board member Scott Baldermann would ban signing or retention bonuses that lead to competition between schools but require bonuses for teaching at high-poverty schools. Via text message, Baldermann said the proposal was not in response to the CU Boulder study but rather “a values statement to compensate licensed teachers with a fair and transparent pay schedule.”

The proposal has proven controversial for reasons other than the bonuses, including that it would limit some schools’ autonomy over their calendars and budget. But some teachers who support the proposal overall have said they’d be sorry to lose their retention bonuses. The board is scheduled to discuss the proposal Monday and vote Thursday.

Melanie Asmar is a senior reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado, covering Denver Public Schools. Contact Melanie at masmar@chalkbeat.org.

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