District Trendline

More districts are paying teachers strategically to meet critical needs. Is yours?

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What if the key to filling empty classrooms isn't just universally raising teacher salaries? Over the past several years, talk of teacher shortages has dominated education. The data seems to contradict itself. Researchers estimate that there are at least 55,000 vacant teaching positions nationally. Yet a recent analysis highlighted that, when taken on a per-pupil basis, staffing levels actually hit an all-time high in the 2022–23 school year (and NCTQ's recent analysis bears that out).

The reality is, teacher shortages do exist—in specific subjects, regions, and schools—and high-poverty schools and students of color bear the brunt of the vacancies. In the 2022–23 school year, only 45% of public schools in low-income areas and 42% of schools with mostly students of color were fully staffed, compared to 60% and 68% in more affluent schools and those with mostly white students.

Shortages are also much more prevalent in certain subjects. The need for general elementary teachers has only recently been on the rise, while special education, math, science, and career and technical education (CTE) have long experienced the largest number of vacancies.1063

Given this context, district incentives to recruit and retain teachers will likely fall short if they do not attend to the needs of hard-to-staff subjects and schools. In this month's District Trendline, we examine how large districts pay teachers differently based on district needs to fill these critical gaps. We call this "strategic compensation," or "differentiated compensation."

More districts are offering higher compensation for teachers in hard-to-staff schools and subjects than in past years

Differentiated compensation can be a valuable tool for districts to hire and retain teachers in hard-to-staff subject areas or schools. Research has shown that under the right conditions, it can incentivize behavior, such as bringing effective teachers into schools1064 or subject areas1065 most in need and increasing retention.1066

Based on a sample of 148 large districts1067 from across the country, drawn from NCTQ's Teacher Contract Database, we found that:
  • Most districts provide the option for additional pay for hard-to-staff subjects. Three in four districts (110 from our sample) offer stipends, bonuses, alternative salary schedules, or other types of incentives like tuition reimbursement to teachers working or hired into hard-to-staff subject areas like special education, math, or science—a 17 percentage point increase since 2017 (see the first District Trendline analyzing this topic).
  • Fewer districts provide stipends or other incentives for teachers hired or retained in high-need schools, with 76 (roughly half) offering additional funds to these educators. Despite being a less popular incentive model, differentiated compensation for teachers in high-need schools has increased 20 percentage points since 2017.
Figure 1, below, shows that the percentage of large districts offering differentiated pay both for teachers working in hard-to-staff subjects and high-need schools has more than doubled since 2017.

Figure 1.

While many contracts lay out specific requirements through which teachers are eligible for additional compensation, at least 39 district contracts include flexible language that leaves the decision to provide such incentives up to the superintendent, school board, or another entity. So while those districts are included in the above counts, they may not actually be providing additional pay in practice.

Districts tend to incentivize subjects with the greatest shortages

Given that certain subjects like special education, STEM fields, CTE, and English as a second language experience the most vacancies nationally, we examined our sample to better understand whether district incentives align to national trends. We found that large districts were most likely to provide differentiated compensation for teachers working in special education, English as a second language or bilingual education, math, and science—generally aligning with federal teacher shortage data.

Figure 2.

School districts have long struggled to recruit and retain special education teachers. District contracts continue to reflect this struggle with 72 districts, or just under half of our sample, providing incentives for special education teachers. Districts vary significantly in both the extent and format in which they provide additional compensation. The Hawaii Public School District (HI) continues to have the most generous stipend of the contracts we reviewed, with special education teachers receiving an annual $10,000 bonus. Detroit Public Schools Community District (MI) provides the most substantial one-time bonus, with eligible teachers receiving $15,000. Other districts, like Tulsa Public Schools (OK) take a hybrid approach, with special education teachers eligible for 5% of their base salary as a bonus, as well as an additional one-time 5% salary bonus.

Despite about half of states reporting CTE as a shortage over the last few years, stipends or bonuses for CTE teachers are much more rare. Districts that do provide incentives to CTE educators take varying approaches. Dallas Independent School District (TX) provides a one-time recruitment stipend of $3,000 to CTE teachers, while Jackson Public Schools (MS) provides teachers in CTE positions $10,000 over three years. Aurora Public Schools (CO) provides the most substantial stipend for CTE teachers in our sample, with educators teaching CTE courses with a math, science, or engineering focus eligible for an annual $5,000 stipend.

Most districts' incentives are too low to be effective

As discussed in past District Trendlines, research suggests that a bonus of at least 7.5% of a teacher's base pay, or roughly $5,000 annually for the average teacher in the United States, is most effective for recruiting and retaining teachers in critical areas.1068 Yet only 17 districts in our sample explicitly offer additional compensation that has the opportunity to reach the recommended $5,000 threshold. Within this small group, almost all (16 of 17) provide incentives for hard-to-staff subjects, while only 10 extend similar incentives to high-need schools. Notably, some districts may offer additional steps or alternative salary schedules, or provide combinations of incentives that could potentially meet this threshold, but this makes calculating an exact figure challenging. For instance, Prince George's County Public Schools' (MD) contract provides special education teachers with an annual stipend of up to $3,036, but also notes that the chief executive officer may make exceptions to salary schedule placement rules for teachers in designated critical subject areas. This leaves at least 43% of contracts (n=63) that offer some form of annual incentive falling below the benchmark.

Figure 3.

Another strategy for keeping teachers in the classroom: retention bonuses

Many districts are also leveraging retention bonuses to keep teachers in the classroom, particularly in hard-to-staff schools where attrition tends to be a more significant challenge.1069 While we have not yet collected data on all districts in the Teacher Contract Database, the retention bonuses that we have identified vary significantly across the sample that NCTQ has collected. Some districts provide lump-sum bonuses to all returning teachers, while other districts have focused their retention bonuses more strategically in specific schools or roles. Dekalb County School District (GA) offers tiered retention bonuses: all returning teachers get $2,000, while highly effective returning teachers get $4,000 if they agree to transfer to a high-need school. Other districts, like the New York City Department of Education (NY) or Volusia County Schools (FL) offer gradually increasing retention bonuses based on years of service. These incentives can range from as little as $50 to as much as $4,500.

Differentiated compensation is a powerful tool to attract and retain teachers. More districts should explore its potential

Ultimately, despite growth in the number of districts offering strategic compensation opportunities, our analysis reveals significant room for greater investment, not only in the number of districts providing these incentives, but also in how much they offer. Districts have long struggled to fill positions in certain schools and subjects, and it's imperative that all districts' approaches to paying teachers address these challenges head-on.

How district leaders can use differentiated pay to recruit and retain teachers:
  • Identify unique district needs and invest in targeted, specific differentiated compensation strategies that align with the demands of your highest-need schools and hardest-to-fill subjects.
  • Ensure that compensation incentives are sufficient to influence behavior. While some districts may be unable to provide a $5,000 incentive, district leaders should examine their local labor market, as well as those of surrounding districts, to understand and implement a competitive compensation strategy prioritizing the schools and subjects with the greatest need to make the dollars stretch.
  • Focus on retention incentives like annual bonuses, tuition reimbursement, and career development opportunities such as teacher-leadership roles. Signing bonuses may be effective for attracting talent, but retaining a strong workforce requires ongoing investment.
District leaders who thoughtfully craft and implement targeted compensation strategies are more likely to successfully weather expected workforce challenges like widespread layoffs and ensure that, no matter what tomorrow brings, their students continue to receive a high-quality education.