School & District Management

Case Studies Detail Districts’ Personnel Challenges

By Catherine Gewertz — November 18, 2008 3 min read
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All too often, large school districts struggle with organizational problems that undermine their ability to assemble top-notch teaching, administrative, and central-office staffs. In a bid to illuminate solutions, a group of scholars, advocates, and policymakers released case studies today detailing promising new approaches to recruiting, hiring, and training education personnel.

The 10 studies mark a key early step by Strategic Management of Human Capital to reshape the national dialogue on how districts can improve student achievement by getting better talent and managing it more effectively. The group formed five months ago as a project of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (“Project Aims to Improve H.R. Systems in Big Districts,” June 18, 2008.)

Dysfunctional human-resource systems and shortages of strong teachers and principals are legendary bumps in the road to good schools. To smooth that road, districts must develop a clear educational improvement strategy, and carefully tailor recruitment, hiring, training, placement, evaluation, promotion, and pay systems to make that strategy work, said Allan R. Odden, a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a SMHC co-director.

“You can’t fix those problems with a program here and a program there,” he said. “You need an overall, cohesive [human resources] acquisition strategy, so you get the teacher, principal, and central-office talent needed to execute those strategies.”

One case study looks at Minnesota’s “Q Comp” teacher performance-pay program. Three examine newer ways of producing teachers and principals offered by New Leaders for New Schools, Teach For America, and The New Teacher Project.

Long Way to Go

Five of the case studies show how big school districts—Boston, Chicago, Fairfax County, Va., Long Beach, Calif., and New York City—altered their human-resources pipelines. One study analyzes the five districts’ strategies, finding they have done particularly well streamlining hiring so they don’t lose good applicants, and expanding their pools of new teacher and principal candidates by using monetary incentives, “grow-your-own” programs, better outreach to universities, and alternative programs such as Teach For America.

The 408,000-student Chicago district, for instance, works with several alternative-certification programs to bring more faces into its applicant pool, and has reduced teaching vacancy rates to 3 percent from 40 percent, the cross-case analysis said. It has stepped up its marketing and its partnerships with universities, actively recruiting teachers from good schools of education within a 500-mile radius. It uses a summer fellows program to lure those within a year of earning certification.

Chicago does not permit “bumping” by senior teachers of those with less seniority from their jobs, and principals have broad authority over staffing at their schools. The district draws principals from multiple routes, including a special program to develop teachers as school leaders. It moved up its hiring timelines to snag promising candidates, and used a business-management model to revamp its human-resources work, slashing to two days from 61 days the amount of time it takes an applicant to be contacted by a district staff member.

The cross-case analysis found, however, that while the five districts have made pivotal progress in recruiting and hiring, there is still a long way to go in improving training, evaluation, and compensation so that they clearly serve districts’ school improvement strategies. Professional development for teachers and principals still is not well focused or aligned with the curriculum, it said, and districts have yet to figure out solid ways of evaluating teachers and principals, and measuring teaching and student performance and using those results to guide human-resources decisions.

As they try to design comprehensive human-resources strategies, school districts can take a conceptual page from the business world, said Edward E. Lawler III, a University of Southern California business professor who is an expert on human-resources management and organizational effectiveness, and serves on SMHC’s organizing task force. Unlike mass retailer Walmart, which is known chiefly for its low prices, the upscale, Seattle-based retailer Nordstrom emphasizes customer service, which gives staff talent a pivotal role in the company’s success, he said.

“Talent management in education is the critical issue,” he said. “It is a business where talent makes all the difference.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Case Studies Detail Districts’ Personnel Challenges

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