Study Shows Teacher Bonuses Don’t Work

A contracted study shows that teacher bonuses don't help retain educators in schools as one major city's union and district clashes.

By Erika Hanson | Published

National Teacher Unions Have Lost 200,000 Members

teacher bonuses

Bonuses and work go hand in hand. While not mandatory, many companies hand out bonuses to employees as a means to boost performance and aid in retention. This sentiment also is true within the Ed sector, where bonuses are common. In Colorado, teacher bonuses in part led to a teacher strike in 2019. Three years later, the issue remains a battlefield between district heads and the Denver teachers union, as a recent study shows no correlation between teacher bonuses and teacher retention

Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association commissioned a study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder researchers as part of the agreement that ended a 2019 teacher strike in Denver regarding teacher bonuses. Before the strike took place, Denver had handed out teacher bonuses on the merit of high test scores and high effectiveness ratings, among other things. 

teacher bonuses

The $2500 teacher bonuses in debate were set aside every year as a means to keep teachers at Denver’s highest priority schools. The program was enacted in 2015.  It was part of a goal to ensure great teachers in all classrooms, especially in the district’s highest-poverty, or highest-priority schools. 

During the strike, the teachers union wanted the district to refrain from handing out bonuses,  instead using the funds to boost teacher salaries across the board. But the district fought against the union vehemently. The outcome was to contract the university to deliver a comprehensive study on whether or not teacher bonuses aid in teacher retention. The outcome showed that there was no clear impact on whether or not the bonuses aided in teacher retention. 

The district and teachers union now prepare to head back to the negotiation table to determine the next contract in regards to teacher bonuses. As the results show that educator retention didn’t in fact correlate with bonuses, the question on the table now remains how to change policy accordingly. The authors of the university study did note that in other states, larger bonuses than the Denver allotted amount of $2500 proved successful in other states at retaining teachers. One thing being considered is higher bonus criteria, and changing the allotted figure to a higher amount. 

teacher bonuses

The CU Boulder study analyzed the effectiveness of teacher bonuses between 2016 and 2019. In the study, researchers compared educator retention at 30 schools where teachers had received the bonus to the retention rates at similar schools where teachers did not receive rewards. The results found no statistically meaningful difference between the schools.

Teachers throughout Denver’s schools back up the university’s findings. Sara Thomas, a math teacher at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College said that teacher bonuses were a “very, very small” part of why she stays at the school she is at. Furthermore, Thomas didn’t even know about the school’s highest priority incentive when she took the job. 

The teachers union currently has several ideas to replace the teacher bonuses. One comparable idea is to increase the number of similar bonuses for teachers working at Title I schools that house a high amount of students from low-income families. Similarly, the union suggests simply expanding on which teachers can receive the incentive, regardless of which school they teach at. 

On the other side of the argument, the school board has proposed changes as well. One proposal suggested banning teacher bonuses that would lead to more competition between schools. The caveat to this proposed change, however, seeks to reappropriate the bonuses to high-poverty schools. The board is scheduled to discuss the proposals tonight, with voting scheduled to happen this Thursday.