Retaining and Rewarding High-Quality Teachers

Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series on teacher quality in independent schools. The previous blogs described the four characteristics of high-quality independent school teachers and how independent school educators hire high-quality teachers. The authors of the study and blog posts are Matt Balossi and Natalia R. Hernández, graduates of the Peabody College of Education’s doctoral program at Vanderbilt University. NAIS members can access the full report here.

Great independent school teachers demonstrate a strong interest in continued growth and want feedback that will help them become better teachers, according to our study on teacher quality.
Yet retaining and rewarding high-performing teachers are ongoing challenges for independent schools. To begin with, school leaders need to consider whether they accurately identify their high-performing teachers in their evaluation process and whether the process improves their teachers’ performance.
Our study showed a key difference between school leaders and teachers over evaluations: While 93 percent of schools formally evaluate teachers’ performance, administrators and high-quality teachers do not agree about whether formal evaluation processes are effective.
Below we describe additional findings of our study and make recommendations for schools to consider.

Is There a Link Between Qualities Valued and Qualities Assessed?

In seeking to determine whether independent schools formally evaluate the characteristics of high-quality teachers, we found the following:
  • 97 percent of respondents evaluate their faculty members’ ability to develop strong relationships with students;
  • 96 percent evaluate pedagogical knowledge;
  • 90 percent assess content expertise; and
  • 31 percent evaluate their faculty based on strong student outcomes.

Administrators and Teachers Don’t Agree on the Value of the Evaluation Process

Administrators and teachers have divergent perspectives on the efficacy of their schools’ formal evaluation process. For example, administrators positively responded to the question “To what extent does your school’s evaluation process influence teacher quality?” Some said that formal evaluations have a moderate effect on teacher quality and that teachers’ attitudes about feedback often dictate the extent to which the process influences their teaching. Other administrators reported that they clearly outlined formal processes, strictly followed them, and effectively tied these processes to teachers’ compensation.
Some administrators admitted they did not adhere strictly to their school’s set process, but they noted that the formal teacher evaluation provided some benefits, including a common language of expectations, recommendations for improvement, and opportunities for reflection.
Conversely, teachers responded to the same question with a range of negative responses. Some teachers said they could not recall ever being evaluated despite the fact that the administrator at the same school provided an elaborate description of the process. Most teachers we interviewed indicated that the process was something teachers knew they had to do, but they felt it had little to no positive effect on teacher quality.
A division head at one school described the formal evaluation process as “having a profound impact on teacher quality that scaffolds over time.” Meanwhile, the teachers at the same school had a different view: “For high-quality teachers it has absolutely no impact at all. Perhaps it gives administrators the ability to move out poor teachers,” one teacher said.

How Administrators Reward High-Quality Teachers

High-quality teachers value opportunities to learn and lead, according to our research. Schools consistently use a variety of methods to retain and/or recognize their best teachers beyond the scope of a formal evaluation or salary increase. For instance, 99 percent of schools “financially support professional development opportunities.” (See the graphic below.)
retaining teachers graphic.jpg
In fact, high-quality teachers said they receive ample support from their schools to further their professional development. Many indicated that they chose to stay at their schools because of professional development and continuing educational opportunities. One former public school teacher said, “When you’re hired here, all of a sudden you realize you’re in the major leagues. The sky is the limit on professional development funds and the expectation is that you’ll take advantage.” Additionally, the school leaders we interviewed spoke with great pride about the financial support they dedicate to professional development.
Ninety-four percent of schools recognize and retain their best teachers by providing them “leadership opportunities.” Teachers and administrators identified opportunities to lead by serving on school-wide committees, receiving additional titles, and assuming more public responsibilities. However, it’s worth noting that almost all teachers we interviewed said lack of time is the greatest obstacle they face in their work.
When it comes to other rewards, we found that independent school educators value a particular kind of financial support — for their children’s tuition. This is somewhat of a departure from research showing that financial incentives do not improve educators’ performance as measured by student outcomes. Specifically, in our study, increased salaries and tuition remission were considered rewards for work well done, not motivators to “teach better.”
In asking the questions “How does your school administration support high-quality teachers?” and “Why do you continue to work at your current school?” we found that high-quality teachers whose children are enrolled in the schools where they teach perceive tuition remission as a reward for their work and an important tool for retention.
On the other side of the school spectrum, administrators reported a need to establish competitive salaries while also recognizing the allure of tuition remission, especially when recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers. “To get great teachers to stay, salaries must be competitive outside of the field of education to be able to recruit the best and brightest not just what makes you competitive within the field of education. And tuition remission really is a draw to high-quality faculty,” one administrator said.
Schools use a myriad of measures to reward high-quality teachers. It’s worth noting that administrators tend to include “informal” feedback from multiple constituencies when determining rewards for high-quality teachers:
  • 57 percent of respondents reward based on informal parent feedback;
  • 60 percent of respondents reward based on informal student feedback;
  • 65 percent of respondents reward based on informal collegial feedback; and
  • 84 percent of respondents reward based on informal supervisor feedback.

indicators high quality.jpg

Recommendations: Give Teachers Opportunities for Growth and Make the Evaluation Purpose Clear and Practice Consistent

In the midst of growing financial constraints, independent schools must prioritize the way they use increasingly limited funds. It is important to underscore that our study revealed that tuition remission has a significant impact on retaining and rewarding high-quality teachers who have children in the schools where they work.
In addition, high-quality teachers in independent schools value feedback that helps them develop and improve their craft. Keeping high-quality teachers engaged begins with providing specific, growth-oriented feedback based on a trusted foundation, because the best teachers always want to be better.
Opportunities for growth and leadership engage the best teachers in their communities — and help retain them. However, some schools can succumb to identifying the same teachers for varied opportunities, leaving those teachers feeling overwhelmed and time-squeezed and others feeling undervalued. Instituting formal objective evaluations will limit the tendency for administrators to rely too heavily on informal word-of-mouth feedback when selecting teachers for leadership and growth opportunities.
Administrators should clearly identify and publicize the purpose of teacher evaluations. If evaluations are meant to provide feedback for growth, then school leaders must dispel the myth that observations and evaluations are customarily used to move out poor performers. School leaders can reinforce this by making observations a consistent practice.
Independent schools frequently describe their cultures as strong, relationship-oriented, and supportive. Implementing an effective teacher evaluation process is one way to demonstrate such strengths.
Matt Balossi
Matt Balossi

Matt Balossi lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with his wife and three sons while administrating at Wydown Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri.

Natalia Hernandez
Natalia Hernandez

Natalia R. Hernandez lives in New Orleans with her husband and two daughters. As a passionate independent school administrator, she is proud to be the assistant head of school at Isidore Newman School (Louisiana).


4/28/2016 10:27:54 AM
Matt and Natalia,

This is important research and you should be commended for conducting it and sharing the results. There are so many issues here, but the critical one linked to the future of independent schools is what kind of eval. system can lead to a substantial percentage of faculty being A-level teachers? Even though studies show that money is not an incentive for teachers to improve performance (and I agree with this), faculty and school culture is a motivator. When there is a faculty culture of excellence, however that is defined in a rigorous way, then you will have great results. And a faculty culture of excellence, in my mind, is linked to paying high performers more and recognizing their excellence and turning them into mentors. It's not that the money motivates them, it's that the money signals to the entire faculty that the school values, truly values great teaching! As I mentioned in one of my blogs, small classes and a lot of slightly above average teachers are not going to get the job done anymore. There are systems that reward excellence without creating morale problems and ind. schools need to investigate them.

Thanks for raising this issue. It goes right to the value proposition that so many ind. schools are facing these days.

Tom Olverson
Consultant, Resource Group 175

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