School & District Management

City School Rules on Hiring Found to Deter Teachers

By Catherine Gewertz — September 24, 2003 4 min read
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Urban school districts are losing out on the best teachers because they are mired in layers of policy and practice that postpone hiring until after most of the best applicants have accepted jobs in suburban systems, a report released here last week contends.

“Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Schools,” from the New Teacher Project. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The study by the New Teacher Project challenges the perception that city school systems are strapped for teachers because too few people want to teach in high-poverty schools. On the contrary, the authors found that with good recruiting strategies, urban districts can draw five or more applicants for every opening.

But even with a wealth of candidates, urban districts lose their hiring edge by keeping applicants in limbo for months as they wait for final budget allocations and for teachers to exert their transfer rights or give notice they are leaving.

Fed up with waiting until July or August, 31 percent to 58 percent of the applicants in the four districts studied withdrew from the process, the authors found. The best-qualified ones pulled out in greater numbers than the less-qualified, leaving districts to hire from a weaker pool.

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See the accompanying chart, “Hiring Timelines for Urban Districts and Their Neighbours.”

Most of those who withdrew took jobs in suburban districts that extended offers two to five months earlier, and the applicants told the researchers that the late timeline was a major reason for accepting other jobs. Two-thirds or more said they would likely have chosen the urban district if it had made its offer at the same time as the competing employer.

The report examines some of the reasons urban schools find themselves with too few qualified teachers just as the federal No Child Left Behind Act steps up the pressure to staff all of their classrooms with good instructors. It probes hiring problems, but does not analyze urban districts’ difficulty retaining teachers.

The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit consulting group that helps districts strengthen their hiring, based its study on data analysis and interviews in four midsize and large districts. The districts are not named in the report.

“We do believe it’s absolutely possible for urban districts to make changes to these timelines so schools can be staffed with high-quality people,” Michelle Rhee, the president of the New York City-based group, said at a Washington news conference. “But we are also not naïve about what it’s going to take.”

While the inefficiency of districts’ human-resources departments contributes to the problem, the study’s authors found that teacher- transfer rules, vacancy-notification requirements, and budget uncertainties combined to gum up the process of hiring new teachers.

The report recommends that districts aim to complete their hiring by May 1. Administrators are urged to make those decisions, even if budget allocations are not yet final, with a special emphasis on nabbing top-quality applicants who are likely to go elsewhere if prompt offers are not made.

Culture of Delay

Districts must develop better budget and enrollment forecasting to allow more targeted hiring, the report says. Schools should play a greater role in hiring, and the central office must devise efficient systems for receiving, processing, tracking, and placing applicants, it says.

“One of the biggest challenges is ownership—getting people to understand that we have to move swiftly,” said the executive director for human resources in Atlanta’s public schools, Millicent D. Few, who joined Ms. Rhee and other education leaders to discuss the report. “We have a culture that still favors delay.”

The vacancy-notification system contributes to the problem by, in many cases, allowing teachers to wait until late summer to notify the administration that they plan to leave, Ms. Rhee said. If they give notice earlier, they can lose such assets as health insurance or the right to teach summer school.

Adam Urbanksi, a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York, acknowledged that some union policies aggravate urban districts’ hiring problems. But he noted that proper incentives can fuel improvement.

Rochester’s policies of guaranteeing health benefits and summer school eligibility and of offering payments to teachers who give notice by March 1 have helped the district define its vacancies and finish hiring earlier. Most hiring used to be done between August and October; now it is usually complete by March, says the report, which cites Rochester as an example of improved policies.

Teacher-transfer rules usually prohibit the hiring of outside teachers until current district teachers have been placed. Those periods can extend into midsummer, keeping new hires at bay. The report advocates that teachers’ unions agree to revise such rules to allow administrators to consider candidates from outside and inside the district more equally.

The report offers the San Diego public schools as an example of one way to shift such rules. In January, May, and July, transferring teachers have two weeks to bid on vacancies. Any position still open can be filled with an outside hire.

Peeling away the “ossified” layers that hinder swift, high-quality hiring is tough but possible, said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington- based organization that represents urban school systems.

“It’s going to take time, collaboration, and creativity on the part of management and unions to create incentives and disincentives to make this work,” he said.

Eliminating barriers to hiring is critically important in helping schools meet the teacher-quality mandates in No Child Left Behind, said Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based research group. “We can do this if we try,” she said.

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