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Published in Print: February 9, 2005, as The Back Office


The Back Office

A Neglected Side of Teacher Quality

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The issues at the center of today’s teacher-quality debate—certification and training—are more relevant if we have a better understanding about how districts can get the best applicants into our classrooms.

In the summer of 2001, the staff of the Houston Independent School District’s human-resources department was scrambling to hire teachers. At the time, anxiety about a pending national teacher shortage was still relatively high, and the district’s human-resources director, like her counterparts elsewhere, approached the hiring season with a sense of urgency. She told her staff, “If a teacher walks through our door, she can’t leave without talking to someone who can answer her questions.”

To see if her message got through, the director used an old retailers’ trick: She sent in a secret shopper. “We had someone come in who was a certified special education teacher, but was not teaching; he was in the city visiting a friend,” she explained, “and we arranged for him to ‘come to the front door’ and go through the process.” The secret shopper’s report was discouraging. Despite being certified in a hard-to-staff subject, he was lost in the bureaucratic shuffle and left the office as he came, unnoticed.

As Houston’s secret-shopper experience suggests, questions of teacher quality as well as quantity are very much contingent on the behind-the-scenes work of school district human-resources offices. District HR departments play an important role in recruiting teachers, whether at job fairs, through advertising, or by shepherding unsolicited applicants who walk through their doors. They have a hand in selecting and hiring teachers, managing both the logistics and (often) the substance of candidate screening and interviewing. Employee evaluations, development opportunities, and benefit packages also fall under HR’s purview. For better or worse, a district’s efforts to identify, attract, and retain applicants who will make good teachers are fundamentally tied up with the work of its human-resources department.

Despite the matter-of-fact connection between HR and teacher quality and quantity, researchers and policymakers largely ignore it. Instead, they spend their time talking about how best to screen potential teachers: Do current certification requirements make sense? Should education schools have a monopoly on teacher supply?

In many ways, today’s teacher-quality debate seems to boil down to one question: Who ought to be allowed entrée to the profession? This misses a much more immediate and important question whose answer depends on human resources and the district back office: How do potential teachers actually end up in the classroom?

What do we know today about how human-resources departments move teachers into the classroom? A look at the small amount of available evidence on who actually ends up teaching and where they teach is not very encouraging. It suggests that district recruitment, selection, and assignment methods don’t serve students very well.

Dale Ballou, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, finds, for example, that unlike in other fields, graduating from a top college does little to improve one’s job prospects in education. When graduates from top colleges are hired, they aren’t rewarded the way they are in other fields. A host of studies echoes Ballou’s bottom line: We’re failing to attract the best and brightest into teaching.

Meanwhile, research also suggests that teachers who attended top colleges and have strong academic skills (again, the best and the brightest) are actually more effective in the classroom. These are the very people we want teaching—the same ones that school districts do a poor job of hiring, placing, and keeping.

Recent qualitative studies suggest that many factors associated with the work of human- resources departments act to impede effective hiring: collective bargaining agreements that constrain hiring and placement; organizational cultures that emphasize compliance over support; organizational structures that fragment service delivery; outdated technology; a lack of human-resources expertise; and others. When California’s San Diego city school system can’t tell new hires where they will be working until August, because its transfer and notification system pushes placement decisions to midsummer, it’s no wonder that quality applicants are lost. How can potential teachers answer such basic questions as where to live if they don’t know where they’ll be working until a few weeks before school begins?

Despite a growing sense that there’s something going on here (see two recent studies by the New Teacher Project and the Center on Reinventing Public Education), very little systematic evidence exists about how HR practices affect teacher quality. Take a small example: Many districts use commercial interview instruments to help select their teachers (for example, Martin Haberman’s “Urban Teacher Selection Interview” or the Gallup Organization’s “Teacher Perceiver Interview”). Beyond the claims of those marketing them, we know of no empirical evidence about whether these instruments are effective, or how widely they are used.

For better or worse, a district's efforts to identify, attract, and retain applicants who will make good teachers are fundamentally tied up with the work of its human-resources department.

The point isn’t to say that these instruments don’t work. In fact, such selection methods (interviews, sample lessons, and so forth) probably offer the best opportunity districts have for discovering the elusive characteristics that make teachers successful. The problem is that we just don’t know if they work or not.

Education isn’t alone, of course, in neglecting human resources. For years, private-sector human-resources departments toiled in the background. Today, however, HR is a hot topic in business. Whether companies look at the links between their strategic plans and HR, at HR’s value as an organizational resource, or at generic human-resources strategies and what circumstances they fit best, the private sector now generally assumes that the human-resources department must be a strategic partner in order for businesses to succeed.

Other parts of the public sector are also paying attention. In the 1990s, for example, the reinventing-government movement highlighted the critical importance of the human-resources function and the need to assess and refine its role and responsibilities.

In education, the bottom line is that we need to know more about the district human- resources component and how it affects teacher quality. We need to know more because of the large, relatively fixed investment that districts make when hiring teachers; the persistent misgivings about the overall quality of the teacher workforce; the competition among districts for high-quality teachers; the difficulty in discerning quality; and most important, the critical role that teacher quality plays in explaining student achievement.

Understanding human resources matters all the more in light of the changing demographics of the teacher workforce: Put simply, teachers are getting older, many will soon be retiring, and we will need to find millions of new recruits to replace them. Given these projections, the coming years will bring both challenges and opportunities for reshaping the nation’s teaching workforce. As policymakers approach this daunting task, HR could play a key role in moving the most able teacher-candidates from the applicant pool into the classroom.

In the end, the issues at the center of today’s teacher-quality debate—certification and training—are more relevant if we have a better understanding about how districts can get the best applicants into our classrooms. Unless school systems do a good job of selecting and keeping the best teachers, new certification requirements or pre-service training reforms may not matter much at all.

Vol. 24, Issue 22, Pages 31-32

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