Published Online: February 26, 1997

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To Snare the Best, Fairfax Revamps Teacher Hiring

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Springfield, Va.

If the Fairfax County school district's central hiring office had a "What's In and What's Out" list for 1997, it would look something like this:

Out: Rows of file cabinets stuffed with applications. Subjective interviews. Sixty-one-day delays before getting back to anxious job applicants.

In: Resume-scanning database. Standardized, research-backed interviews. Forty-eight-hour response time.

Administrators here say that their old hiring process--now out--was not only cumbersome but also cost them some good prospective teachers. "We had too many file cabinets," recalled Brad Draeger, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources, "and schools were frustrated because they felt we were losing candidates."

So the 143,000-student district revamped its hiring system. Now, not only is it more streamlined than before, it's also designed to pinpoint the best teachers for the system.

When large bureaucracies can't confirm vacancies and process applications fast enough, good teachers often slip through the cracks, according to "What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future," last fall's report of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. The report points to the hiring process as one piece of the puzzle that districts must put together to get the most effective teachers into their classrooms. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.)

Officials of the Fairfax County schools, which earned a mention in the report, understand this connection. The new system, in effect since last year, will enable the district to achieve its commitment of finding the best possible candidates, Mr. Draeger said.

"The teacher workforce is getting smaller and smaller, and we darned well better be the best at finding the best teachers," he said. "I don't want what other counties find by accident."

Obstacle Course

One of the nation's wealthiest areas, Fairfax County in suburban Washington has, perhaps, more leeway than most districts to create such a system. Other places are not so lucky.

The commission's report describes the experience of a young Ivy League graduate who encountered a "bureaucratic obstacle course" in her attempt to get a job with the New York City schools. She had to go through five different processes just to get a file number, take several hourlong train trips to hand deliver documents, and make countless attempts to reach a person by phone. After all that, the district returned her unprocessed application in the mail three months into the process--without explanation.

Based on what happened to her, the aspiring teacher figured that she had as good as chance to get a post in the New York City schools as a person walking in off the street, the commission reported.

In some of the nation's largest districts, the report adds, "thousands of qualified candidates who want to teach have had to take jobs elsewhere because they encountered unending problems in the system's procedures and could not even get interviews until the school year had already started."

Linda Darling-Hammond, the executive director of the commission and an authority on the teaching profession at Teachers College, Columbia University, was also a co-author 10 years ago of a study that enumerated problems with school districts' hiring processes. She said that there are still wide variations in the quality of hiring systems in many large districts. In some of the worst systems, she said, the hiring offices are at the mercy of budget cycles that don't allow them to hire until the end of the summer.

But even when a costly overhaul is not a possibility, Ms. Darling-Hammond said, hiring offices can still take action by starting systematic recruitment earlier, handing more decisions to individual schools, and investing in mentoring programs to prevent attrition of new teachers.

Finding the Best

The estimated cost to start up the new system in Fairfax County, the country's 11th-largest district, was $250,000. Mr. Draeger credited Alan E. Leis, the district's deputy superintendent, for pinpointing the need for a redesign and carving out the money. But, Mr. Draeger added, if the system prevents eight great teachers from slipping through the cracks or eight lawsuits stemming from poor teaching performance, "you've easily recouped that cost."

When prospective teachers first make contact with the district, through a telephone call, visit, or meeting with a recruiter, they receive a brochure titled "How do I apply for a position with the Fairfax County Public Schools?" The brochure gives candidates information about the new hiring process and instructions on how to prepare a resume, which becomes the application.

Applicants are told to design a resume that includes specialized information such as Social Security numbers and references. They can then mail, fax, hand deliver, or send their resumes across the Internet to the hiring office, said C.R. Mike Sutherland, a recruitment specialist with the district.

Once the hiring office receives the resumeā€š, the scanning software, known as Resumix, reads the document and stores the information in a database. Fairfax County is one of only four school districts in the country now using the Resumix system, according to a spokesman for Resumix Inc., based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Within 48 hours, the hiring office mails a postcard to the applicant confirming receipt. The postcard provides the applicant with a personal identification number and with instructions to call a telephone number to begin the next step of the process.

20 Questions

When the applicant calls, he or she lands in a recording system called Edify. It instructs the caller to enter the personal identification number and verify resume data. The Edify system then leads the caller through a 20-question automated interview containing general questions about teaching. The caller might be given a general statement such as, "Teaching is the most important profession," and would then answer on a scale of 1 to 5 how strongly he or she agreed or disagreed.

Depending on the candidate's qualifications and the needs of the district, an interviewer would next call the candidate to set up a live phone interview. The approximately half-hour live interview was developed exclusively for the Fairfax system by the Gallup Organization. The goal was to provide a high probability that a candidate who interviews well will possess the same qualities as some of Fairfax's best teachers.

Although the live interview questions are kept confidential, administrators hint that they are unconventional. "It doesn't look at the things people traditionally look at; this is more about a person's personal talent that is innate to teaching," said Rosanne Liesveld, a senior analyst with the Gallup Organization in Lincoln, Neb., who worked with the district to write the questions. "What we know is we can predict with good success whether a person has the potential to be an effective teacher."

Also key to the interview process are the interviewers themselves. Many are part-time teachers or teachers on leaves of absence, rather than administrators. "There's a change in tone at the end of the interview when I tell them I'm really a teacher," said interviewer Kelly Peaks Horner. The relieved candidates then ask her a host of questions.

After the candidates have been "Galluped," their live and automated interview results are recorded onto the Resumix system. When a vacancy opens at a school, the hiring office searches through Resumix for appropriate candidate matches and forwards the resumes to the school.

Administrators at the school then conduct in-person interviews and select the best match. All told, the hiring office receives about 10,000 resumes and hires between 800 and 1,000 teachers a year.

No Scapegoating

Some observers worry that the national commission's report opened up personnel offices to unjust criticism.

David Haselkorn, the president of the Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit group Recruiting New Teachers Inc., said that hiring needs to be looked at as one part of a streamlined system of putting better teachers in the classroom. Mr. Haselkorn, who contributed research to the report, cautioned that policymakers should not interpret the report in a way that makes scapegoats of personnel departments. "My experience is that they're highly professional," he said.

Elizabeth L. Arons would agree with that assessment. She is the director of the department of personnel services for the 123,000-student Montgomery County public schools in Maryland, a former president of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, and once worked in neighboring Fairfax County.

Ms. Arons said that personnel administrators "took a big hit" in the report. "I found that surprising, given the energy and efforts that have gone in to recruitment and selection," she said.

Nevertheless, she said that the Montgomery County district was looking at recruitment models in other sectors, such as colleges and businesses, as well as at Fairfax's new system.

"Everybody is looking at speed as an issue: How can we improve this process? How can we utilize technology to get there? How can we get that technology, resume scanning, that allows us to move quickly?"

In the country's second-largest district, Michael P. Acosta has a mandate to move quickly. As the administrator for employment operations for the Los Angeles Unified School District, he is hiring nearly 4,500 teachers this year, in part because of California's new class-size-reduction program. ("95% of Calif. Districts Get Aid To Cut Class Size," Dec. 11, 1996.)

While his office does process information on computers, he said, staff members try to maintain a focus on human contact, and sometimes that takes precedence over speed.

"There are times when we are slow, but we're such a big bureaucracy, it's hard. We see 15,000 to 20,000 applications per year," Mr. Acosta said. "I usually tell people, one of the things we have to remember in human resources is that we're not just hiring people, we're gatekeeping for children."

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