How administrators can hire-and keep-the best
By Robert Rothman
Applicants for teaching positions at Blue Creek
Elementary School in the North Colonie (N.Y.) School District go
through a grueling process. First, a team assembled from all six
elementary schools in the district screens their applications, looking
at their college grade-point averages, the rigor of the courses they
took, their extracurricular activities, and their experience working
with diverse students, among other factors. Promising applicants are
then invited for interviews.
The interview process is "overwhelming" for the
candidates, according to Rose Jackson, Blue Creek's principal. In all,
six principals, an assistant superintendent, two or three parents, and
two or three students quiz prospective teachers on instructional
issues, such as classroom management strategies and ideas for using
technology. And that's not all. "If we have the opportunity-we don't do
it as much as we'd like-we observe the teacher or invite them to do a
model lesson," says Jackson. "That's been successful for us, although
it is stressful for the candidates."
The process at Blue Creek is unusually thorough.
Because the district, which is located outside of Albany, attracts 200
to 300 applicants for every elementary teaching position, principals
like Jackson can select from a variety of competitive candidates. In
addition, the screening process eliminates the central office
bottlenecks that often plague large districts, particularly urban
districts, which in many cases hire teachers close to-or after-the
start of the school year and have a limited pool from which to draw.
Few schools conduct the intense interviews and teacher observations
that Blue Creek does.
Yet even Jackson worries that the North Colonie
process may not be perfect in matching applicants to positions. The
initial screening of paper credentials might weed out an excellent
prospective teacher, she notes. "The best candidate for us might be one
we turned down," Jackson says.
The Research: Teaching Counts
the process of hiring workers is a challenge in any industry, the
stakes of getting it right in education are particularly high. A
growing body of research suggests strongly that the quality of teaching
is the largest school-related factor associated with student
achievement. Studies conducted in Tennessee, Dallas, and elsewhere have
shown that good teachers can improve student achievement by as much as
an extra grade level over the course of a year.
Moreover, the effects of teacher quality are
cumulative. Researchers from the Dallas Independent School District
found that students assigned for three years in a row to effective
teachers-those whose students gained in achievement more than would be
expected by past performance-went from the 59th percentile in the 4th
grade to the 76th percentile in the 6th. But a similar group of
students assigned to less effective teachers actually lost ground over
that period: they went from the 60th percentile to the 42nd.
The Tennessee study, which examined the "value
added" that teachers provide, showed that even low-achieving students
of the most effective teachers gained about three times as much in
achievement as those taught by the least effective teachers.
Reflecting such findings, the No Child Left Behind
Act, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education
Act, requires schools to employ "highly qualified teachers" in every
classroom. Under the law, all teachers in schools eligible for Title I
aid for disadvantaged students must be highly qualified this year, and
all teachers in all public schools must be highly qualified by 2005-06.
Although the law allows states to come up with
their own definitions of "highly qualified," the U.S. Department of
Education requires that, at a minimum, such teachers have a four-year
college degree, a full state teaching license, and demonstrated
knowledge of the subject they are teaching, either by having a college
major in the subject or by passing an examination.
Who Is the Effective Teacher?
is little research on the characteristics of effective teachers-perhaps
surprising, given the growing recognition of the importance of
teaching. One recent synthesis, conducted by Jennifer King Rice, an
associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the
University of Maryland, found that teachers' years of experience, the
selectivity of the college or university they attended, whether they
held a certificate in the subject they taught, their coursework in
subject matter and pedagogy, and their verbal abilities (as measured by
tests like the SAT) were all associated with higher levels of student
achievement. By contrast, there was little evidence of the impact on
student achievement of emergency certification or scores on teacher
However, the study also found large gaps in the
research. There is little research, for example, on teacher quality in
elementary and middle schools, in subjects other than mathematics, and
for teachers of special populations, such as English-language learners
or students with disabilities.
Nevertheless, the research does suggest some
factors principals can look for in hiring teachers, Rice says.
Subject-area knowledge is important, and an undergraduate major in the
subject taught is a useful clue, particularly for high school
mathematics teachers. But "advanced degrees don't seem to matter much,
unless you pay close attention to the alignment of what teachers teach
and what is learned in the higher degree programs," she says. On the
other hand, knowledge of pedagogy is crucial. "I would be reluctant to
hire anyone with no experience or no coursework in teaching methods,"
In an effort to codify these types of factors, a
new organization, the American Board for Certification of Teacher
Excellence (ABCTE), is developing a test that will be administered
nationwide and will offer certificates to any prospective teacher who
passes it, regardless of whether or not the candidate attended a
teacher-education institution. The board's certificate has been adopted
in Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded
the organization a $35 million grant to expand its development efforts.
(The ABCTE is also developing a certification for experienced teachers
that would compete with the National Board for Professional Teaching
Kathleen Madigan, president of the ABCTE, says the
test reflects the concerns of principals and others who hire new
teachers. "We had administrators, principals, superintendents, and
personnel directors help us determine what beginning teachers need to
know," she says. "We were attentive to what they see as everyday needs."
The test includes items on subject-area knowledge
and pedagogical knowledge. Madigan says that any teacher who passes the
test would be ready to teach. "You learn to teach on the job," she
says. "If you have solid subject-area knowledge and professional
teaching knowledge under your belt, you're ready to start learning your
Finding the Right Fit
some educators caution that such knowledge, while necessary for
beginning teachers, is not sufficient and that principals need to look
at additional factors before deciding whether to hire a new teacher. "A
principal needs to take into consideration the culture of the school
and the population of students," says Michael Allen, a program director
at the Education Commission of the States. "A teacher who would work
well in suburban schools may not do well in inner-city schools or
schools with high minority populations. A principal would have to take
into consideration whether this teacher is someone who has the skills
and personality to handle the kids in their school."
Others point out that principals also want to know
whether teachers can work in teams with other teachers, and whether
they share the belief that all students can learn. And, since new
teachers are fresh out of school, principals need to know if they can
be authority figures in the classroom. "They are looking at candidates
who have the ability to be adults," says Nancy Moir, director of the
New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Principals can find the answer to such questions
when hiring veteran teachers by looking at recommendations from
previous employers. But what about new teachers? For them, the
interview process is critical.
Martin Haberman, a distinguished professor in the
school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has
developed a set of questions that can help principals predict success
among urban teachers. The method has been used to hire 30,000 teachers
in 160 cities each year, Haberman says. Follow-up studies suggest that
the teachers hired through the method perform at least as well as other
teachers and remain in the profession longer.
Haberman's approach is aimed at eliciting teachers'
points of view on a range of qualities-such as persistence, their
approach to "at-risk" students, and the distinction between their
professional and personal orientation to children-that together help
principals determine whether prospective teachers can relate well to
children. "How much teachers know is valuable," Haberman says, "but it
only matters if you can relate to kids. If just knowing stuff was all
that matters, college professors could teach middle school kids."
Rethinking the Hiring Process
approaches like Haberman's might enable principals to make more
informed judgments about prospective teachers, many school leaders may
not be able to conduct such thorough inquiries into candidates'
backgrounds and approaches to teaching. In a survey of teachers in four
states, Edward Liu at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found
that, while 80 percent of new teachers interview with the principal,
fewer than half interview with other teachers, and only 9 percent
interview with parents.
Moreover, Liu's survey found that few schools offer
teachers the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills:
only 7.5 percent of the teachers in the four states teach a sample
lesson as part of the hiring process. However, the survey also notes
that in one state, Michigan, an unusually high number of new
teachers-29 percent-had done student teaching at the school where they
ended up working. Significantly, new teachers in Michigan reported a
relatively high degree of fit between their backgrounds and the schools
where they worked.
The study confirms that giving schools the
authority to hire teachers is not enough to ensure that the hiring
process works well, Liu says. "There's a fair amount of school-based
activity, but that didn't necessarily reflect new ways of hiring or
richer exchanges of information."
In many cases, principals may not be able to take
advantage of the hiring power they have because they hire teachers too
late to be selective. According to the survey, 62 percent of teachers
in the four states are hired within 30 days of the start of their
teaching responsibilities, and 33 percent are hired after the school
year has already started.
Moir, of the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, says
late hiring does not necessarily result in the selection of poor
teachers. "I know in urban settings many principals hire at the last
minute," she says. "Folks who hire underprepared teachers say there
aren't good candidates. I'm not sure there aren't good candidates."
But Jessica Levin, chief knowledge officer of the
New Teacher Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, says late
hiring does reduce the quality of the pool of teacher applicants. Many
well-qualified applicants take jobs in other districts because they
cannot wait for the urban schools to hire them, she says. "Many urban
districts are receiving a large number of high-quality applicants,"
Levin says, "but because of the overall hiring process they wait too
long to hire, and they lose the best applicants to other districts."
In a recent report, the New Teacher Project
identified three systemic factors that contribute to late hiring.
First, many districts allow teachers to notify schools that they are
leaving as late as August, which makes it difficult for schools to
anticipate vacancies. Second, union contracts in many districts grant
veteran teachers the first right to vacant positions. Third, budget
uncertainties make it difficult to know whether vacant positions can be
The report recommends that districts require
earlier vacancy notices, transfer requests, and budget allocations to
allow schools to hire teachers earlier in the year. It also highlights
several districts, such as Clark County, Nev., San Diego, and
Rochester, N.Y., that have implemented at least some of these policies.
Other districts, such as Boston, have addressed
some aspects of teacher hiring in collective bargaining agreements.
Under a 2000 contract, the district and the teacher union agreed to
prohibit tenured teachers from "bumping" first-year teachers from their
jobs, curbing a practice that often resulted in late vacancy notices
and hiring. However, this limited reform was less than the district had
sought and was resisted by the union, which had wanted to retain rights
for veteran teachers.
A Two-Way Street
Principals who want to make the right hire should also recognize that the information they give
to prospective teachers-about their own expectations, about the school,
and so forth-may be as important as what they learn about teachers,
according to Edward Liu of Harvard. Hiring is often a one-way flow of
information, from the prospective teacher to the principal who is doing
the hiring, but teachers who really understand the school they are
stepping into will be more likely to feel comfortable and stay.
In the end, keeping good teachers in their jobs may
be more important than attracting them there in the first place. A
study by Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania found
that staffing difficulties schools face stem from the high rate of
teacher turnover-some 29 percent of teachers leave teaching in the
first three years, he found-rather than from increased student
enrollments or retirements. "All the recruitment in the world isn't
going to help us retain teachers," says Moir of the New Teacher Center.
"They are not going to stay if they don't have high-quality support."
Robert Rothman is a principal associate at the
Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. He has been
a reporter and editor for Education Week, a senior project associate
for Achieve, Inc., a study director for the National Research Council,
and the director of special projects for the National Center on
Education and the Economy. He is the author of Measuring Up: Standards,
Assessment and School Reform (Jossey-Bass, 1995).
For Further Information
M. Allen. Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say?
Denver: Education Commission of the States, 2003.
American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, 1225 19th St., NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036; tel: 202-261-2620.
M. Haberman, "Selecting 'Star' Teachers for Children and Youth in Urban Poverty." Phi Delta Kappan 76, no. 10 (June 1995), 777-781.
Is There Really a Teacher Shortage?
Seattle: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy,
J.F. Kain and C. Singleton. "Equality of Educational Opportunity Revisited." New England Economic Review (May/June 1996), 109.
J. Levin and M. Quinn.
Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Classrooms.
New York: New Teacher Project, 2003.
E. Liu. "New Teachers' Experience of Hiring:
Preliminary Findings from a Four-State Study." Paper prepared for the
annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association,
Chicago, April 2003. Also see website of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
J.K. Rice. Teacher Quality: Understanding the Effectiveness of Teacher Attributes. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2003.
is available online.
W.L. Sanders and J.C. Rivers. Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers
on Future Student Academic Achievement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee,
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