Special Report

Hiring Headway

By Bess Keller — January 09, 2003 5 min read
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Recruiting teachers can mean sending a representative with a folding table to a hiring fair. Or it can mean a yearlong campaign that targets the best education schools, courts top students, and doesn’t let up until a hundred newly minted teachers have signed contracts and been matched to the neediest schools in the system.

The Dallas public schools recently chose the second, less traveled road. District officials hired a nonprofit consulting group, the New Teacher Project, to land those traditionally trained and licensed teachers, capping an energetic season of recruitment that included a six-state media campaign and bonuses for teachers who signed on the dotted line early.

The New Teacher Project consultants drew in about 700 applicants, just over 100 of whom were hired and headed last fall to what many educators would consider hardship posts in the 166,000-student Texas district.

Large, high-poverty districts in addition to Dallas are acting on the insight that the lackadaisical approaches of the past can’t meet the challenges they now face. Under pressure to raise student achievement and comply with the teacher-quality provisions of the sweeping federal education law of 2001, more than a handful of urban districts are overhauling their outreach to potential teachers, streamlining the application process, and offering jobs earlier to get a better pick of the crop. They are also striving for a system that will not only lure new teachers to where they are needed, but that from the start also will give the recruits a good chance of thriving there.

If no district has yet gotten its hiring game where it should be, the makings of improvement are on display.

Teacher ‘Ambassadors’

In Dallas, for instance, the New Teacher Project showed how the impersonality of a large-scale hiring operation can be overcome. The project employed moonlighting district teachers as “ambassadors” to coax promising college students into the program and through to hiring. That step was as important as advertising, says Michelle Rhee, the president of the group.

The project also took applicants through an intensive, 4½-hour interview in groups so they could see the high caliber of their peers. And although making the match between teachers and individual schools took several months, program administrators were able to notify candidates of acceptance--tantamount to a job guarantee--within a few weeks, according to Rhee.

In the six years of its existence, the New York City-based New Teacher Project--an off-shoot of Teach For America, which sends recent college graduates to urban and rural schools--has gone from contracts with three urban districts to contracts with close to 20. Its expansion is one measure of interest in better teacher hiring.

Two years ago, the project worked with the 74,000- student Denver system, where its fresh approach continues to be felt. To recruit for the current school year, the district adopted the slogan “Meet the Challenge.”

“We were looking for folks who wanted to come to our district, who had that sense of calling” to work with disadvantaged children, says Linda Schempp, a human-relations manager for the system. “We’d also tell them, ‘By the way, Denver is the highest-paying district in Colorado.’”

The district has been reaching out recently to community organizations with the goal of finding more bilingual teachers for a school population that is itself 60 percent bilingual, Schempp adds.

Following a national trend, Denver put its teacher applications online last summer, one part of a move to make crucial hiring information readily available to principals and to shift most of the responsibility for hiring from the central office to the schools.

That’s a direction favored by a number of big-city districts, and for good reason. Such a move cuts down on job offers that come without a specific assignment attached, which many teachers regard as an inferior deal. And it helps schools build the staffs they need.

The Cleveland district is further along in the shift to school-site hiring. aided by the kind of computerized system Denver has planned. About a year ago, the 74,000-student Ohio district started requiring applicants to fill out a brief online application and then take a 45-minute online test measuring how well they stack up in attitude and approach to a sample of successful teachers in urban classrooms. The results, along with information about the candidates’ areas of certification, are available online to principals, who ideally take charge of the hiring from there.

Carol Hauser, who heads the district’s personnel office, says the high-tech approach saves Cleveland time and money, while reducing wear and tear on applicants. The test scores provide principals with information that’s far more useful than the resumes and recommendations that used to flood the central personnel office, according to Hauser. In the new system, paper documentation is minimized and pushed to the end of the process.

Following another trend, Cleveland has also ditched most of its paper promotional materials, replacing them with a CD-ROM in a jazzy-looking jacket. Dallas unveiled a similar tool last summer.

Timing Is Everything

But even with better technology and a sharper focus, many big-city districts seem hamstrung by timing. Compared with suburban school systems, they often arrive late to the teacher job market. That’s in part because urban teachers’ contracts are more likely to give at least some teachers already in the system the right to certain jobs before they can be advertised outside, a right that makes for extra, time-consuming steps in the assignment and hiring process. It’s also because figuring out how many teachers are needed can be enormously complicated in a big, shifting system, so administrators wait rather than sign up people for jobs that won’t exist come September.

In Boston during the 2000 teacher-contract negotiations, school officials pushed for the elimination of seniority privileges in assignment and hiring. They won some changes, and were able to step up the district’s hiring schedule.

San Diego has started hiring teachers as early as October for the following school year, nine months before sign-ups used to begin.

“I found the existing approach was very 1950s, conservative, cautious, and lastminute,” recalls Deberie L. Gomez, who has headed personnel for the 143,000-student district since 1999. “In urban districts, you have to go out there and take a risk.”

One risk involves overhiring. Another has to do with pushing the teachers’ union on its rights. Gomez has, for example, asserted that district officials can veto the reassignment of a veteran teacher on grounds other than formal evaluation and type of certification. Such a veto, which has drawn a formal grievance from the San Diego Education Association, could open more positions to teachers from outside the system.

Gomez plans further changes--more online data, more responsibility for hiring at the school level. Already, though, she’s gotten her reward. After her first hiring season, she recalls, “principals were walking up to me, saying, ‘My new teachers are so much better-quality than we’ve seen before.’”

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2003 edition of Education Week


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