USHCA Takes an Innovative and Individualized Approach to Bonuses to Recruit and Retain High-Quality STEM Teachers.

What challenge is USHCA tackling? 

The Urban Schools Human Capital Academy (USHCA) is committed to creating more attractive professional pathways for teachers, particularly those in high-demand and high-shortage fields, like science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). STEM-trained individuals have multiple career opportunities open to them, many of which include a lucrative starting salary and long-term earning potential. The teaching profession, even if perceived as potentially rewarding for intrinsic reasons, struggles to compete with the financial incentives other STEM careers offer, especially because teacher contracts are 9 months with commensurate salaries. Within this context USHCA often advises largely urban districts to develop incentives that can more effectively draw strong STEM teacher candidates to the profession and retain those that are in place. These incentives may include compensation packages with bonuses for PK-12 teachers who demonstrate effective STEM teaching in the classroom or who teach high-needs students.

How does USHCA work with districts?

USHCA works with urban districts generally over a three-year time frame to help them overcome their human capital challenges, and specifically to attract and retain strong STEM teachers. During the partnership, which is typically three years in duration, USHCA guides the superintendent’s cabinet and human resources division to use best practices around key district functions, such as recruiting teachers, approaching union negotiations, retaining teachers, and filling key vacancies. 

Many of the challenges that USHCA supports districts to overcome stem from university/college teacher pipelines that produce an oversupply of elementary teachers but very few teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas. In many cases, though, districts struggle to identify exactly where the problems lay along that pipeline. Understanding this, USHCA works with districts to examine teacher supply and demand trends based on available data, and then to develop innovative solutions to address the identified needs.

How does USHCA address this challenge? 

One well-documented approach to recruiting and retaining strong teachers is providing signing bonuses. This is especially true for subject areas with more extreme teacher shortages, like STEM. USHCA often advises its district partners to offer bonuses as a part of their recruitment and retention strategies for high-need subjects. The organization also helps districts use bonuses to reward effective teachers. Effective teachers can be identified through a combination of principal observations, student achievement results, and student surveys.

However, bonuses are not always as straightforward or simple as they initially seem. For example, the union contract rules in one large urban district disallowed teacher bonuses following the signing of the contract. A solution to help the district problem-solve around this apparent “Catch-22,” was to develop pre-employment bonuses for STEM teachers. Indeed, USHCA has found that pre-employment bonuses are an effective solution in cases where a labor contract might prohibit bonuses after employment. 

Limited budgets pose another challenge to offering bonuses, particularly if a district leader is not convinced that they are an effective recruitment or retention strategy. Understanding this, USHCA works with districts to examine the budget to identify how to offer bonuses or other types of incentives to STEM teachers. USHCA helps pinpoint expenditures that can be reallocated towards differentiated pay and bonuses for teachers in high-need areas, like STEM.

When pre-employment bonuses are not possible or are not enough to encourage STEM majors to enter teaching, USHCA and districts look for other ways to differentiate STEM teacher roles that offer them additional compensation, or other types of incentives such as expanded and professional development opportunities. Taken together, bonuses and additional incentives like these are attractive to STEM undergraduates or graduates who have an interest in teaching, but who may initially be concerned with the limited earning potential traditionally associated with the profession. 

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How has partnering with USHCA impacted districts and their hiring practices?

USHCA has been successful in increasing STEM teacher recruitment and retention in more than 50 of the largest urban school districts. Through district-specific approaches, they have effectively collaborated with human resources teams and other district stakeholder groups that influence the type of compensation packages that can be used to fill open STEM positions and incentivize the retention of effective STEM teachers. 

USHCA’s strategies beyond bonuses and other financial incentives can also be helpful to districts facing shortages. Many partner districts report that they hire teachers earlier and start the school year without vacant positions as a result of improving their human resources functionality. After completion of USHCA’s first three-year cycle of working with 10 urban districts, including some of the nation’s largest, e.g., Los Angeles and Houston, every district indicated that the partnership was powerful and impactful. As one district leader stated, “I would categorically say the support, information, and modules that we received from Urban Schools [USHCA] [are] invaluable.”  

What’s next?

Based on success to date, USHCA feels confident in its recommendation of bonuses as one strategy to address critical shortages. However, the organization knows that it can continue to improve how it serves districts. For example, USHCA recognizes the importance of adapting to industry and generational shifts in teaching and hiring. When USHCA holds its next Academy, they will consider the best recruitment and retention strategies for millennial teachers and principals, which will build on some recruitment strategies they have already begun implementing, including social media and advertisements for varied audiences, such as those attending houses of worship, military retirees, and professionals seeking to change careers. Additionally, USHCA has open-sourced all their tools and resources that can help districts provide more recruitment and retention incentives for STEM teachers.