The Science of Hiring
How to hire the right teacher (almost) every time. By Wayne D’Orio
Maybe it’s happened to you, too, even if you don’t want to admit it. You’re watching TV, some infomercial comes on, and despite all your intelligence and resistance, the sales pitch starts to work on you. I’m sucked in when products promise to solve a bevy of problems, whether it’s a set of knives that can cut through everything from tomatoes to pennies (?!), or some rubber sealant that can fix objects as disparate as broken flowerpots and leaky gutters.
I don’t actually buy those products, and I’m guessing you don’t either. But for the 60-second vacation they offer, you start thinking of how much better your life would be if only you had those things.
As school leaders, you certainly have a multitude of problems with which to grapple. How to improve student learning is the top one, of course. But on any given day, your list could include teacher evaluations, the struggle to successfully implement a new technology, and whether you finally want to deal with that ineffective teacher who’s not improving.
Instead of tackling each of these tasks individually, what if you had a “magic” solution, sort of like an educational version of an infomercial? Your magic solution could be as straightforward as improving your hiring practices. And it’s not magic at all, really, but rooted in cold, hard data.
Now, you might feel there’s nothing terribly flawed about your current hiring practices. But what if a few key improvements could lead your district to make consistently better hires? What would happen if those better teachers started to spread throughout your district? Student learning outcomes would certainly rise. But think longer term. With a stronger cadre of teachers, decisions about tenure would be easier. Implementing new programs, and new technologies, would also be simpler with a motivated workforce. And that drawn-out process of firing an ineffectual teacher that you’ve been dreading? Well, the better your teachers are, the fewer times you’ll face this disheartening process. There’s one more benefit: With less of your time devoted to problems, you can actually brainstorm more ways to improve teaching and learning in your schools instead of constantly putting out fires.
How hard is it to change your hiring practices? And could your district really see the benefits described above?
Don’t take it from me, the salesman of this story. Listen to your peers talk about how they made the needed changes, and what benefits they are seeing.
The Importance of Each Decision
“If you make better hires up front, you can avoid a lot of trouble down the line,” says Dan Goldhaber, vice president of the American Institutes for Research at the University of Washington. “Interventions don’t work, [and nobody wants to deal with] the politics around teacher dismissals.”
Dale S. Rose is even more blunt. “If you believe better teachers make for better student outcomes, then why not do everything you can to improve hiring?” asks the president of 3D Group, a consulting firm dealing in human resources assessment. Rose is also the coauthor of Hire Better Teachers Now.
Research, says Rose, has proved that students with a good teacher will see gains of 1.5 grade level equivalents per year; those with a bad teacher, only 0.5.
“Better teacher selection not only has the potential to improve the quality of the teacher workforce, it is likely to be far more cost-effective than other avenues of reform,” writes Goldhaber in Screen Twice, Cut Once: Assessing the Predictive Validity of Teacher Selection Tools, a report on Spokane (Washington) Public Schools’ hiring practices that he coauthored.
How costly can a bad hire be? Goldhaber’s conservative estimate is that for every teacher hired and tenured, a district is making a potential investment of about $2 million. If you’ve forgotten how hard it is to get rid of a tenured teacher, consider these examples: Chicago Public Schools mandates 27 steps before firing, while in New York City it costs about $250,000 to fire a teacher.
Of course, choice is a big factor in hiring. In Spokane, a district with 45 schools and 1,750 teachers, human resources gets about six applicants for each job. Nationally, studies have shown that there are just over two applicants for every teacher hired. Variances can be large; in Pennsylvania, 75 percent of the districts have at least three applicants for each job. But for popular jobs, such as elementary, math, and English spots, there were 10 applicants for each hire.
Rule One: Formalize Your Process
If there’s one rule everyone interviewed for this story agreed on, it was this: Formalize your hiring process. While it’s standard for many large districts to have a process they follow for each hire, this isn’t always so. “In a lot of school systems, especially small ones, a principal may hear about a person, interview two people, and hire someone,” Goldhaber says.
Even if your district has a process, it might be too informal, warns Rose. “A huge majority of schools are using processes that are not grounded in the science of what works best.”
Simply rating every applicant on the same scale, from an out-of-town candidate to the best friend of your top teacher, goes a long way toward making better hires. In Spokane, where Goldhaber’s study evaluated the district’s hiring practices over four years, starting in 2008, the HR department rates each applicant on a 21-point scale. Then principals can request certain candidates, say everyone scoring above a 14. School personnel re-rate each candidate on a more rigorous 60-point scale and decide whom to interview.
“The actual structure of the system helps to prevent the ad hoc-ness of hiring,” says Goldhaber, who is continuing to analyze Spokane’s hiring practices. “When you put people through the same process, there’s a certain degree of fairness and some independence.”
Pick the Right Factors
If it’s relatively easy to set up a formal hiring system, the real work is assessing what traits are most important in new hires while de-emphasizing those skills that do little to boost student achievement.
“Use the same indicators that you will evaluate them on” when they are teachers, suggests Sid Camp, executive director of human resources for Gwinnett County Public Schools.
Too often, says Rose, the hiring process is “driven by individuals rather than what predicts results in classrooms.” Rose sets up a list of 49 key skills in his book, but he knows that each district, and sometimes each school, will have its own criteria. “Take a careful, thoughtful look at your school,” he says. “Classroom management is a standard skill, but in a large urban district that’s overcrowded, management is even more important.”
If you’re just starting the process, ask your top teachers to help identify what skills are the most valuable. After you’ve created a system, Rose adds, collect data on your hires and review their interview scores to see if the numbers correlate with who the best teachers are.
In Spokane, this work led Superintendent Shelley Redinger and chief HR officer Tennille Jeffries-Simmons to recognize that classroom management, collegiality, and a professional manner were three important characteristics of good teachers.
What isn’t as important as you think? Grade point average and where a candidate went to school. Google famously used to refuse to hire any candidates with a GPA below 3.0, but now the company doesn’t even consider GPA when screening for jobs. “Research has shown that GPA isn’t that predictive of performance,” Rose says.
Spokane also changed its policy to make letters of recommendation confidential. “That changed the content,” Redinger says. While candidates choose who writes a recommendation, often this includes a supervisor, and getting an honest assessment can be revealing, she adds.
“I know people are skeptical about references,” says Jennifer L. Hindman, assistant director of the School Leadership Institute in the College of William and Mary’s School of Education and the author of Effective Teacher Interviews. “They feel people may not disclose all they know.” She recommends making phone calls to further vet your group of finalists.
Changing your interview questions to delve into scenario-based queries can also help reveal key differences among candidates, says Camp. Gwinnett has stopped asking applicants about their philosophy of education and now asks: What type of students do you like to work with? The district also hands candidates a set of student data and asks them to design an instructional plan that’s differentiated based on the data. “It’s a scientific approach,” Camp says. “We have very structured interview questions.”
Another suggestion is to ask candidates to respond to revealing questions, such as how they would handle a parent’s complaint about their child’s grade, says Hindman.
Actively Recruit and Act Early
“One of the key things people conflate is the difference between recruiting and selecting,” says Rose. “Recruiting is extraordinarily important.”
Both Spokane and Gwinnett heavily emphasize the importance of recruiting.
“You can’t just post a job on your website or the Internet and pray that someone qualified applies,” Camp says. “You have to build talent pipelines.” Gwinnett, a district of 134 schools that hired more than 1,700 teachers this school year, has a variety of initiatives designed to improve the number and skill of applicants. Officials work closely with local college deans, branding the organization to education students while making sure graduates are ready to be solid teachers. “In 2004, we had 250 student teachers. This past year, we had over 1,800,” Camp adds.
A microcosm of this work is reflected in the district’s ties to Georgia Gwinnett College, a liberal arts school created nine years ago as part of Georgia’s university system. Camp says the district was involved before the school even opened. “We helped them put together a conceptual framework of teaching,” he says.
Spokane’s path was similar. It reached out to colleges to let candidates know about the district. While it has done a good job of getting applicants, the district was losing many top candidates because it took too long to make job offers.
Spokane revamped its process to get applicants out to principals more quickly, allowing for faster job offers. But Redinger decided to go further. When the district identifies top teaching candidates who are juniors in college, it offers them teaching contracts that became effective once they graduate.
Gwinnett does something similar, putting teachers under contract in March for the following fall. The best teacher candidates are available in March, Camp says. “The bell curve declines [as we move] into June and July. If we hire earlier, we get a better share of teachers.”
No matter how hard you work to fill a spot, sometimes the best choice is not to hire someone. “The most courageous decision is to list your teacher as ‘TBA,’ ” Hindman says. She recommends filling a classroom with a strong sub and recruiting more, or waiting for additional graduates in December.
After the Hire
No matter how excellent your hiring process, sometimes a bad fit occurs. Both Gwinnett and Spokane try to quickly weed out hires who aren’t working out.
“The number of nonrenewals has gone up,” says Jeffries-Simmons. “We want to continue to make sure that if somebody is not a match, we [enact] nonrenewal swiftly but fairly.” Washington state recently revised its rules, requiring certified hires to work provisionally for three years before granting tenure.
Since Georgia is a right-to-work state, Gwinnett doesn’t have tenure. While Camp emphasized that the district worked hard during the recent recession to avoid layoffs, he says teachers are faced with nonrenewal if they aren’t working out.
The work in these two districts appears to be paying off. Spokane has increased its graduation rate from 60 percent to 83 percent in the past five years. And Gwinnett took home its second Broad Prize last year as the outstanding urban district in the country.
“I’ve seen this play out over and over again,” Redinger says. “You’re only as good as your people. We’re not shy about it. We’re looking for continuous improvement.”
The $$ Factor
Pay has a role to play when hiring the best staff but it’s not the most important factor. When it comes to attracting the best teachers—and keeping them once they are hired—how important is pay?
Though both Camp and Redinger say it’s not the top factor, it is important. Camp says that Gwinnett, which has one of the top pay scales in Georgia for veteran teachers, is looking for ways to increase starting salaries. And Spokane is just beginning a study to compare its salaries with those of nearby districts.
Across the country, districts have tried financial rewards to make jobs more attractive.
Urban districts typically have a tougher time attracting candidates than suburban counterparts, due in part to lower salaries. Oakland’s new superintendent, Antwan Wilson, is trying to face this problem head-on by proposing to raise salaries by 10 percent over three years. Rural districts can sometimes face the same problems as their urban counterparts, typically paying less and offering fewer social perks than a metropolitan area. In South Carolina, the state government will knock $5,000 off a federal Stafford loan if a teacher spends five years in a low-income school. In-state loans can be forgiven, too, if the recipient fills a high-need position.
And in maybe the most extreme pay experiment in the country, teachers at one charter middle school in Manhattan make $125,000 a year.
A recent study of the Equity Project school shows that achievement was higher for students who attended for four years than for students at similar New York City schools. But the teacher attrition rate was a whopping 47 percent after one year, almost twice that of nearby public schools.
The generous pay teachers receive at schools like Equity also bring extra responsibilities. These demands can cause burnout. Teaching is a delicate balance of skills, and while pay is a key component, it’s
certainly not the most important factor.
Image: Science Museum, SSPL via Getty Images (beaker); Juanmonino/istockphoto (figure)