Hasty Hiring, Heavy Duties Found to Plague New Teachers

By Debra Viadero — April 30, 2003 4 min read
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New research on beginning teachers suggests that more than a third are hired after the school year starts, and that most are jumping into jobs where they are expected to shoulder the same responsibilities as their more experienced colleagues.

The study is available from the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The findings, presented here last week during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, are the latest from the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, conducted by Harvard University’s graduate school of education. Led by professor Susan Moore Johnson, the project is a multipronged research effort begun four years ago to examine how new teachers are recruited, hired, and supported.

Coming at a time when many K-12 schools are facing teacher shortages, the project is poised to provide important clues on ways schools can keep their classes fully staffed. National estimates suggest that as many as 20 percent of teachers quit by the end of their third year of teaching.

Edward Liu and Susan M. Kardos, both research assistants with the project, presented the new data last week. They based their findings on surveys of 486 first- and second-year teachers in 186 elementary, middle, and high schools in four heavily populated states: California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

Contrary to the traditional image of new teachers as 22- or 23-year-olds fresh out of college, 46 percent of the teachers in the study sample had switched to teaching from other careers. The average age of the midcareer entrants was 38.

In keeping with a nationwide trend toward moving management decisions from districts to schools, Mr. Liu said, most of the newcomers had undergone decentralized hiring processes. Only 23 percent of the new teachers surveyed, for example, were offered their positions by districts’ central offices.

The rest were hired by individual schools, either directly or after an initial screening by the central office.

Missed Opportunities

Even so, the findings suggest that the teachers were hired hastily, and that the process typically relied heavily on reviews of the new hires’ paper credentials, rather than on extended interactions with the school community or on any demonstrations of teachers’ abilities.

For example, the study showed that:

  • Thirty-three percent of the new teachers were hired after the start of the school year; 62 percent were hired within 30 days of the date they started the job.
  • While principals interviewed 88 percent of the newcomers, only half the teachers got an opportunity to interview with teachers at the school. One exception was in Michigan, where the hiring process exposes potential teachers to a broad range of school people.
  • Only 7.5 percent of the teachers were observed teaching a sample lesson as part of the hiring process; 35 percent got a chance to observe classes.

One reason the hiring procedures may not have been more extensive, Mr. Liu said, is that administrators are often hampered by practical constraints—late-arriving budgets, for example, or union rules.

“The trend toward decentralization doesn’t necessarily change hiring practices,” Mr. Liu added. “It changes the responsibility for hiring and pushes it down.”

Once hired, said Ms. Kardos, teachers enter one of three types of professional environments: a veteran-dominated culture, in which the most experienced teachers set the tone for the school’s teaching practices; a novice-oriented culture typical of charter schools, newly reconstituted schools, and others with high concentrations of new teachers; and a more integrated environment, where neophytes and their more experienced colleagues are continually communicating.

Newcomers get a chance to benefit from veteran teachers’ wisdom only in the third type of culture, according to Ms. Kardos, who hypothesizes that such settings might also better enable novice teachers to succeed.

Yet the study findings suggest that, for many new teachers, the first couple of years on the job are considerably less supportive and collaborative.

For example, 43 percent of new teachers said no mentors or more experienced colleagues observed them in the classroom the entire first year. More than half—56 percent—said they got no special help because they were new. Seventy-seven percent said that they shouldered the same academic and administrative responsibilities as those of veteran teachers.

Still, Wade Devlin-Scherer, an education researcher at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh who critiqued the study, said he saw some signs of progress. For instance, he noted, 41 percent of the teachers said they had submitted portfolios during the hiring process.

What’s clear from the study so far, said Ms. Kardos, is that researchers need to focus on new teachers’ experiences at the classroom and school levels, rather than on teacher-retention and recruitment policies.

“Not one single new teacher was surprised by the size of their paychecks,” she said. “But they were surprised at how hard it was to do the thing they wanted to do most—and that was to teach children.”

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