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Recruitment & Retention

Districts Are Screening for Racial Biases During Teacher Job Interviews. Here’s How

By Madeline Will — December 07, 2021 9 min read
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Teachers’ racial biases result in lowered expectations for students of color, discriminatory disciplinary practices, and curricula that don’t represent students’ cultures. But what if districts could screen out people with those biases during the hiring process?

Experts say that school districts are increasingly asking teacher-candidates questions about cultural competency, race, and equity during the application and interview process. And although districts are trying to diversify their teaching force to better match their students, it’s slow work.

“Ultimately, when we’re looking for people to serve our students, my key questions are: Can you teach these students, even if they don’t look like you, [even if] you’re not familiar with their culture? How are you going to teach them as if they were your child, your cousin, your brother, your sister?” said Karen Rice-Harris, the chairwoman for the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators.

Rice-Harris, who is also the special education instructional leader at the Community Consolidated school district in Sauk Village, Ill., recommends administrators ask candidates questions about their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, empathy, and students’ social-emotional needs. For example, applicants should be able to explain how they honor the diversity of their students in their instruction and curriculum, she said.

“One of the keys to student learning is finding the right match of educators who have the mindset … that educating students considering the totality of who they are is important,” Rice-Harris said. “As our world becomes more diverse, as K-12 education in America becomes more diverse, it is incumbent on the education field to make sure we embed solid practices in the hiring process and professional learning process.”

School systems, especially ones in urban areas, have been asking questions about cultural competency for at least the last five to 10 years, said Lauren Dachille, the founder and CEO of Nimble, a teacher-hiring software company that works with about 500 districts across the country. But after the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation last year, districts seem to be putting even more of a focus on how applicants think and talk about race in the classroom, she said.

“Now that we’ve become a little more aware of the concept of anti-racism and maybe a little more woke as a culture, I do think that districts have started to emphasize these questions a little bit more,” Dachille said. “They might be more common, they might be more explicit.”

Districts are asking applicants about student outcomes

Teacher-candidates are often asked about their past experience working with diverse groups of students and how they plan to build a classroom culture in which all students feel valued, Dachille said. Many districts will also dig into whether candidates believe that all students have the capacity to learn and thrive academically, she said.

And some schools and districts may ask teachers scenario-based questions about how they’d respond to inequities or systemic biases, Dachille said. For example, an applicant might be asked what they would do if they noticed a colleague in their grade level was disproportionately sending Black students out of the classroom for discipline.

Ashley Davis, the principal of Shaw Elementary School in Boston, said her administration team has worked strategically over the years to make sure the school’s values are reflected in the hiring process. For example, she will tell candidates the school’s priorities around anti-racism and ask them to respond. And she will ask them what they’ve done personally or professionally to be more anti-racist or how they ensure that the values of diversity and cultural awareness are reflected in their practice.

Davis said she looks for candidates to give specific examples when answering those questions: “We can tell—are you just talking language or are you able to connect your language with what you actually do?” she said.

Culturally Responsive Interview Questions

Karen Rice-Harris, the chairwoman of the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee of the American Association of School Personnel Administrators, said districts should ask teacher-candidates questions during the job interview that examine their commitment to diversity, equity, and empathy. Here are some examples.

  • Sometimes, there is a belief that a commitment to diversity conflicts with a commitment to excellence. How would you describe the relationship between diversity and excellence?
  • What elements would you find in a curriculum that honors inclusion of different cultures, abilities, and perspectives?
  • An overrepresentation of students from historically marginalized populations receiving special education services continues to exist. Why do you think this occurs and how would you address this issue within your role?
  • How do you foster relationships with students who may not meet your academic or behavioral expectations?
  • What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? How can each impact your ability to teach?
  • Provide an example of how you have/could address the social and emotional needs of students to foster increased student-engagement and learning.

The Montgomery County, Md., district asks teaching applicants a series of questions about their approach to instruction and classroom management: How do you incorporate gender diversity and the different racial and cultural backgrounds of your students and families into your daily instruction and classroom environment? How do you connect with the backgrounds of your students? And how do you ensure that student outcomes are not predictable by race, ethnicity, culture, gender, or sexual orientation?

In Indianapolis, meanwhile, district officials have been asking applicants questions to understand how they think about students of color and students from low-income families for several years now. (The Indianapolis district uses Nimble software for educator hiring.)

About 80 percent of the district’s students identify as Black, Hispanic, multiracial, or an ethnicity other than white, compared to just a quarter of the district’s teaching corps.

“We want hiring managers to have a baseline about where a candidate is starting from in terms of [their] mindset about race … and we want to be clear from the front end about our values as an organization,” said Alex Moseman, the director of talent acquisition for the district.

For example, one of the questions that hiring officers ask prospective teachers is, “Why do you think that low-income students predictably perform lower on standardized tests than their more-affluent peers?”

“We’re intentional about not asking about race [in that question],” Moseman said. “We want to see what associations candidates make about low-income students.”

Then, the interviewer will follow up with questions about what supports the teacher would give to those students in the classroom and dig into what they believe about those students’ motivation and capacity for success.

Moseman said that the district would not hire a candidate who has a deficit mindset toward students of color or those from low-income families. But candidates don’t have to answer these questions perfectly right off the bat, because all teachers receive professional learning to develop their vocabulary about race, he said.

“Sometimes, candidates will talk about equity and justice but not talk about race,” Moseman said. “Sometimes, they’re not comfortable yet having a specific conversation about race in the classroom. That’s fine—that’s where [they] can grow as an employee.”

Administrators see potential for better teacher retention

Dachille said Nimble is working to leverage artificial intelligence to help districts gauge candidates’ cultural competence by their answers during the interview process and on their application, as well as their references and any other artifacts. Then, Nimble could use that information to predict how effective the candidate will be in various classroom environments, including those with mostly students of color or students from low-income families.

For example, Dachille said, districts often want their teachers to believe that all students, regardless of their background, can learn at high levels. Nimble could ask candidates, “How much of student learning is within the control of the classroom teachers?” and then analyze the extent to which the responses emphasize in-school versus out-of-school factors or high learning standards for all students. Then, Nimble could link the themes in the responses to classroom outcomes for different student populations.

This work is still in the research and development phase, she said. (That kind of predictive analysis is part of a larger research movement to better understand the expected longevity and effectiveness of a teacher-candidate.)

In the meantime, hiring officers say they think that emphasizing equity and diversity during the hiring process has contributed to a more inclusive school culture. Over the past four years, the Indianapolis school system has effectively closed the gap between the retention rates of teachers of color and white teachers, Moseman said. While he can’t explicitly connect that progress with the district’s interview process, he thinks that it may be related.

After all, teachers of color want to work in a school system where inequities in education are openly addressed and educators are asked to examine their own biases, said Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former principal at a Philadelphia charter school.

Surveys show that many teachers of color who leave the profession do so in part because they’ve experienced microaggressions and racist stereotypes from their colleagues.

I have heard districts say that candidates appreciate the screen for cultural competency, and they have had high-quality candidates give in their feedback that that is something that drew them to the district.

As principal, El-Mekki said he looked for candidates who had both the courage to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for the success of students of color and the humility to interrogate their own mindsets about race. He’d also ask applicants if they’ve ever worked for a Black administrator before.

Once, a candidate pushed back against that line of questioning, saying that she didn’t feel like it was appropriate to talk about race during the interview process and that it was “shock value.”

“No, this is natural conversation for us—talking about race, class, and privilege,” El-Mekki responded.

But experts say a growing number of teacher-candidates are not only comfortable answering those types of questions—they appreciate and even expect them.

“I have heard districts say that candidates appreciate the screen for cultural competency, and they have had high-quality candidates give in their feedback that that is something that drew them to the district,” Nimble’s Dachille said.

Teacher shortages may pose challenges

Some teaching jobs, like special education and high school math, are perennial shortage areas, but many districts have reported that teacher vacancies in general are up since the pandemic. El-Mekki said he worries that administrators will think, “We’re struggling, people are resigning—I don’t know if I want to ask about [applicants’] anti-racist approach, we’ve got a vacancy [to fill].”

“And that, to me, is scary,” he said.

Indianapolis’ Moseman said recruiters have to draw a distinction between which skills and mindsets can be developed through professional learning and which could be potentially harmful to children. Ultimately, he said, the district can’t compromise on its values.

“The external pressure of shortages in certain content areas is certainly a challenge as you think of hiring for any cross-sector of skill or mindset, but that’s why we try to focus on the developable skills and mindsets that candidates bring to the table,” he said. “As K-12 districts wrestle with all the different talent priorities that they have to navigate, being really intentional about what it is that you value during an interview process is one of the ways that you’re able to be clear about who you are as an organization.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 08, 2021 edition of Education Week as Districts Are Trying To Screen Out Racial Biases During Teacher Job Interviews


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