Human Resources Racing to the Top

By Bryan Toporek — February 25, 2010 5 min read
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Forty states and the District of Columbia have submitted applications in the first round of the Obama Administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top competition, a program that is likely to have a significant impact on school human resources operations. The competition guidelines require states to revamp their teacher- and principal-quality systems—including recruitment, retention, and compensation—by integrating them with performance measures, including student-achievement data.

HR EdVantage spoke recently with Dr. Jody Shelton, executive director of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, about the changes HR professionals might expect as a result of Race to the Top and how schools are preparing.

How has Race to the Top—specifically, the aspect of tying teacher evaluations to student testing—affected human resources departments?

When I look at it, I look at the process of systemic change. You know, you always go back and look at your past experience, and for a teacher, the accountability piece was not there as much as it is now and will be as part of this program. There were definitely always teachers who were accountable, but we now have more in place, starting with NCLB and now looking at this new standards-based approach.

As HR professionals, we need to look at what we want our outcomes to be. What do we want to accomplish through teacher evaluations? If the ultimate outcome is only student achievement, then I think we create programs that go one direction.

So, I think that Race to the Top has caused HR departments to take a stronger look at their evaluation programs, and look at the systemic change that needs to happen for them to be more effective than they are.

If a school is preparing to implement some of the changes that Race to the Top would necessitate, what first steps would you suggest the HR department taking?

I go back to this little inspirational book called Change is Good … You Go First, by Mac Anderson and Tom Feltenstein. What I think we, as HR departments or as administrators in schools, need to remember is that change is hard but that there are steps to produce positive change.

I think we’re changing so fast in our society today that you blink your eye and it’s different, but at the same time, we have to negotiate this new normal that we’re in. I do think there are some tried and true steps of change that people should not forget about, such as building ownership.

I think that in looking at your teacher-evaluation program, you have to have a common language because you can go out and tell people what to do, but if they don’t understand the system and the program, it’s not going to work. Developing that common language, to me, means developing the program, developing the language that helps you interpret that program, and the training component just has to be there. It has to be there.

I know that some of the temperament right now is that “we’ve got to have these four pillars for Race to the Top and that’s all it can be,” but I think still, if you’re going to be a leader in HR, or a principal who’s doing HR, you have to be willing to take some risks. We can’t just sit back and say, “Oh, I’m afraid… so we’ll just keep doing it this way.” You know, we have to try some of the latest things.

What are some the risks that districts will face when implementing Race to the Top reforms? How can an HR department ease the transition?

I’m a very big systemic person. I’d say you have to analyze your system, scan your horizon. Maybe you have some components that really would make it simple and easy for you to do this, but until you sit down and analyze that, you just don’t know. Sometimes I think that as educators, we get a great idea and say, “Okay, let’s go for this.” I think we need to scan our horizon, look at our system, and make sure our system isn’t broken before saying, “Okay, we’re moving ahead with a new program.” And I think we’d need to have a very serious discussion with all of the stakeholders being involved in that analysis, so that they have an understanding of why we need to go that direction.

There are some signals besides just student achievement that the system isn’t working. That’s why I say systemic change is the way to go.

What can HR do to help educators to deal with some of the expected changes from Race to the Top?

I would go back and reiterate what I’ve said: I think they have to have an understanding of those changes, and involve all levels of people in the change so that there’s ownership as you go through.

And HR can be very instrumental. I think HR is at a really interesting time. When I first started in HR, we didn’t quite have the place at the table that we do now, because people would decide what the program would be, and then they’d come to HR and say “Okay, we need to get these people and here’s what we want, and you do this.” Now, partly with NCLB, partly with changes in what we’re trying to emphasize, these things all relate to responsibilities of the HR department. I think it’s become a whole different environment in which HR is extremely involved in the process.

What potential changes do you see down the road for implementing Race to the Top, specifically for HR departments? I do see more involvement in teacher evaluation. I see HR involved in looking at current programs, and working with our districts to make changes and provide the training for those. Teacher quality has always been a top priority, but I see that as even more essential right now, through Race to the Top. And I see discussions on recruitment, production, and retention, and how we can maintain high levels of quality in those areas.

Another interesting piece I’ve been hearing a little bit about is the alternate certification programs. I think we’re getting more involved in that, there’s definitely pros and cons for people who think it’s a great idea—some states are embracing while others aren’t—but I see evidence of some success with that kind of program.

The other way I see HR involved is working with changes in teacher pay. When you say “pay for performance,” right now, it can mean so many different things. We’ll continue to be talking about the different kinds of programs that are out there.

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