A Perkins Elementary School student practices his speaking skills with his teacher in the classroom. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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Earlier this month, San Diego Unified leaders announced they would offer $10,000 signing bonuses for new special education teachers and nurses to combat a massive nationwide labor shortage.

The move seemed plenty rational for a school district flush with federal COVID relief money and struggling, like so many others, to put a teacher in every classroom. Signing bonuses for special education teachers, in fact, are becoming common. Dozens of districts across the country are handing out big checks in order to entice educators into a job.

To see the bonus money flying, a person could be forgiven for forgetting a trend from the not-so-distant past: fierce resistance, by those who consider themselves most progressive, to pay incentives of any kind.

Up until at least the time Barack Obama left office, Democrats were split on the future of education policy. Many favored reforms involving everything from expanding charter schools to curtailing teacher tenure.

Two of those reforms involved pay incentives: Merit pay and paying teachers extra to work in high-poverty schools. Merit pay attracted the most controversy. It was a plan to put extra money in teachers pockets for increasing their students’ test scores.

Unions and union-backed leaders wouldn’t touch it. Test scores are a flawed way to judge student learning and so teachers tended to slam the idea as too subjective and unfair.

The other idea amounted to a type of hardship pay. It was needed, many reasoned, because of a reality acknowledged across the political spectrum: Teachers at high-poverty schools have a tougher job than those in affluent schools.

“This is a stereotype but if you’re a teacher in City Heights, once the school day ends, the second half of your day begins,” Richard Barrera, a union-backed board member for San Diego Unified, previously told me. “If you’re teaching at a school in La Jolla, once the day is over you might be going home.”

For that reason, it can be incredibly hard to keep teachers in high-poverty schools. Poorer schools in San Diego Unified, for instance, tend to have less experienced teachers, an analysis by Voice of San Diego and the UC San Diego Extension Center for Research found.

“It’s not really fair that the students most likely to need a high-quality teacher are structurally less likely to have access to a high-quality teacher,” Dan Goldhaber, who studies education at the University of Washington, told me at the time.

While studies on merit pay have found it did not push teachers to teach better, studies on hardship pay have shown results. One study found that a $20,000 bonus was enough to bring high-quality teachers into high-poverty schools for two years. Those teachers also got better results and 60 percent of them stayed even after the two years was up, as Slate reported. Still, unions fought hardship pay with the same ferocity as merit pay.

Barrera previously told me it’s because it wouldn’t be good for teachers to take jobs at high-poverty schools for the money.

Instead, he said, teachers work at successful high-poverty schools – and there are some within San Diego Unified – because they share a sense of mission.

The conditions for success, like a collaborative environment and a talented and supportive principal, are more important than extra pay, Barrera said.

Goldhaber disagreed.

“Teachers do care about the quality of school leadership or how collegial the school is, but you can’t just flip a switch and make school leadership better,” said Goldhaber. “We know you can pay an extra $2,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 and it will have an impact on what teachers do.”

Paying people extra money to take certain jobs works – that’s why San Diego Unified and other school districts are doing it. But the same political will does not extend to hardship pay. When I spoke to Barrera this week to ask him if the new signing bonuses might open the door for a reconsideration of hardship pay, he told me, no.

Staffing shortages “were really affecting other teachers in the classroom,” Barrera said. He said, leaders with the San Diego Education Association, the local teachers union, actually suggested the idea of a signing bonus, because they felt it was in their members’ best interests.

Kisha Borden, SDEA’s president, did not respond to a request for comment.

One the one hand, Barrera drew a distinction between paying teachers extra to fill a staffing shortage and paying them extra to help schools that need it the most. But he did acknowledge that some schools in San Diego Unified have struggled for years and it is incumbent on district leaders to come up with a targeted strategy and resources to help them.

In recent years, officials have focused on districtwide strategies, like professional development, as a way to help struggling schools. But it’s clear that districtwide strategies are not enough to help those schools, he said.

“There are certain schools doing really well with certain demographics and others with similar demographics that aren’t. And we tend to see that going on for years – after five years or ten years, some going back even further,” Barrera said. “Those districtwide strategies are important and need to continue, but the strategies also have to include extra resources.”

Barrera pointed to a recent initiative that put literacy specialists in 30 of the most under-performing schools across the district. Efforts like that, that put extra resources and teachers inside schools that need them most, will do more to help struggling schools than hardship pay, he said.

Barrera acknowledged that targeting particular schools for extra resources – and even acknowledging publicly that they exist – would be a relatively new strategy for San Diego Unified. Under former superintendent Cindy Marten’s leadership, the strategy for helping struggling schools was to tell members of the public those schools were doing great.

Schools that are perennially struggling and under-resourced need help and they need help soon. But then again, that has been the case for years.

When I documented delays in services and safety problems at Porter Elementary, one mother told me: “I just got to get my son out of this school. I don’t know what’s wrong. I know they don’t have enough staff. Something’s got to change.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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3 Comments

  1. I respectfully disagree with Richard. It can’t be an either/or strategy. Yes, we need literacy specialists in these schools. And yes, we need hardship pay. I worked in the international schools early in my career as a teacher and so many people wanted to teach in schools in London or Singapore while (low-fee) international schools in low and middle income nations struggled. For example, we received ‘hardship’ pay to teach in schools in Venezuela–Why? Because teaching was far more challenging –fewer resources and poorer working conditions.

  2. I’ve been an educator for 37 years in three metro areas. This sort of incentive program needs to be directed toward teachers who go the extra mile – after-school activities, club advising, etc. The effectiveness of pay for test scores has been debunked numerous times, and has led to horrifying educational practices (think Atlanta during the GWB administration).

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