Boston's Revamp of Teacher Hiring Sparks Gains, Costs

Study cites rise in 'excessed' teachers

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The Boston district's move to begin its hiring process earlier and to allow principals more say over who they bring on board has resulted in a stronger and more diverse pool of teacher candidates, a new analysis concludes.

But the shift has also bumped up against some of the same challenges that have complicated similar efforts elsewhere—notably a costly pool of teachers without permanent positions, says the report from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an independent nonprofit organization that reviews city policies.

Teacher hiring, once a dusty and ill-understood corner of the teacher-quality pipeline, is receiving renewed attention as more districts nationwide struggle to bring on talent during a period of regional shortages and to address a mismatch between a mostly white, female teaching force and an ever more diverse student population.

Boston's efforts were influenced by research from the teacher-training and advocacy group TNTP. In reports dating from the early 2000s, that group suggested that large urban districts often lost out on qualified candidates by waiting too long to bring them on board.

"I don't want to overstate it and say it's easy, but it is doable in a pretty short period of time," said Dan Weisberg, the CEO of TNTP, about hiring earlier in the year. "It's an operational improvement that just about any district can make and see big progress in one year."

The Boston district's concurrent move to a "mutual consent" system, in which teachers can't be placed without agreement from school leaders, follows similar moves in Baltimore, Denver, and New York, among other locations.

Earlier Hiring

As recently as 2013-14, Boston's hiring was a highly centralized process, begun each cycle with the district sorting out voluntary teacher transfers and placing "excessed" teachers—those returning from maternity leave, for example, or displaced because a school decided to eliminate a program. Such placement decisions were largely based on seniority, and some teachers without positions were ultimately "force placed" by the central office before schools got to consider hires from outside the school system.

The process could take well into the summer, and although "open positions" that principals could fill at their own discretion were technically allowed under the teacher contract, few schools used them.

In 2014, the district began a human capital initiative to improve its hiring process, an effort supported by some $25 million in donations from local business and philanthropic groups. In essence, it now posts all positions by March 1 and opens them to candidates inside and outside of the school system.

In 2014-15, the first year of the initiative, some 63 percent of new teachers were hired before July 1; the prior year, only 9 percent were, according to the BMRB report. And teachers hired before June last year were about twice as likely to receive top teacher-evaluation marks compared to those hired in later months.

And finally, the district didn't require any principal or teacher to agree to any placement he or she didn't want.

"We did not force-place last year at all," said Emily Kalejs Qazilbash, the district's assistant superintendent of human capital. "We do not think that it creates a strong school culture."

On the other hand, the pool of excessed teachers without placements has increased. The district began both of the last two school years with more than 400 teachers without positions. (Those figures dropped to below 100 via retirements, terminations, and other exits by the end of each year.)

That's a red flag for the city's teachers' union.

The excessed teachers "have all been recruited, are proficient and exemplary, trained under school district professional development and vetted by colleagues who now reject them," protested Richard Stutman, the president of the Boston Teachers Union. "Doesn't the school district have any faith in its own system?"

And the pool is costly. In all, the hiring reforms cost $10 million in 2014-15 and $13 million in 2015-16, and salaries and benefits for teachers in the excess pool were by far its largest cost. (The district says that the external support from philanthropies doesn't pay for salary expenses.)

The excessed teachers are still involved in instructional duties, such as academic enrichment and tutoring, and they are even evaluated annually. They also don't fit a single profile. Some, Qazilbash said, haven't been on the job market in a while and need to update their résumés. Some aren't in licensing fields with high demand. And some have poor evaluation ratings.

The teachers' union, however, contends that teachers in the pool tend to be more senior and therefore more expensive for the district. And Stutman pushed back on a finding in the BMRB report that some of the excessed teachers have not made an effort to apply for open positions. "I think it's true that some of the teachers grew frustrated and didn't apply. That's not something we condone," Stutman said. "But the vast, overwhelming majority of these teachers have gone out for interview after interview and haven't gotten jobs. Older equals costlier equals rejection, and the school district is looking to get rid of the state tenure law to move these people out."

To the latter point, there is no current mechanism in Massachusetts state law or in the teacher contract by which teachers who remain in the excess pool can ultimately be let go, as is the case now in Denver and the District of Columbia.

Questions on Diversity

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The district and union also disagree on the extent to which the hiring reforms have diversified the composition of the teacher workforce.

The report credits the early hiring system for bringing in more teachers of color, many of whom might have been lost to charter and private schools.

But Stutman contends that the teachers in the excess pool are more likely to be black. The union has filed open-records requests for a demographic breakdown; neither the report nor the district provided one.

The district and the union are now renegotiating the city teachers' contract, which expired this year. They have completed two bargaining sessions, but both declined to comment on whether hiring practices could be revisited during the process.

Vol. 35, Issue 24, Page 6

Published in Print: March 16, 2016, as Boston's Revamp of Teacher Hiring Sparks Gains, Costs
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