Special Report
Recruitment & Retention

More Districts Mine Data to Refine Teacher Hiring

By Robin L. Flanigan — January 25, 2016 5 min read

TeacherMatch CEO and co-founder Don Fraynd has a favorite exercise he likes to put principals and school human-resource teams through: He passes out the same stack of 20 teacher résumés, then asks each person in the room to identify two candidates to bring in for an interview.

“No matter where I do this, almost every single person gets at least one vote,” said Fraynd, whose Chicago-based organization uses sophisticated software applications to help some 200 school districts find the best teachers. “It’s pretty clear we’re all over the place when it comes to this decision.”

The point, of course, as research has shown, is that personal biases, however unconscious, come into play in the hiring process. Experts like Fraynd, on the other hand, say that more data-focused hiring practices can both help districts attract and secure top-notch candidates and more accurately predict whether a teacher will be effective in the classroom.

In addition to minimizing teacher turnover and absenteeism, both of which negatively affect student outcomes, better use of data has helped some districts streamline their hiring processes and hire candidates earlier.

“That’s one of the biggest factors in effective hiring, to really maximize the pool when it’s at its deepest and widest,” said Joseph Hettler, a partner at TNTP, a New York City-based nonprofit organization. TNTP helps districts use data to track historical vacancy trends in specific subjects and schools to take advantage of that ideal hiring time, which Hettler said is between March and May.

With TNTP’s assistance, the Shelby County district in Memphis, Tenn., sends an annual anonymous survey to teachers to ask if they plan to return the following school year. The data from this survey, along with information from other sources, help the district predict the number of vacancies likely to open, and in turn, inform recruitment and staffing strategies.Data-driven-recruitment advocates say they’ve seen the value in switching to a more objective, fair, and research-backed process. In fact, “gut instinct” hiring has become a forbidden phrase in at least one district.

“We’re not even allowed to mention it during the hiring process,” said Dale R. Fisher, the assistant superintendent for human resources at the 3,000-student Deerfield Public Schools District 109 in Deerfield, Ill.

Beyond ‘Gut Instinct’

Using proprietary screening tools from AppliTrack and HumaneX Ventures, the district first looks for themes in candidates’ application materials and screening interviews that indicate a commitment to growth, both professionally and with students. Initial high scorers participate in a series of structured interviews, and based on those scores, get invited to a site-based interview. The district then spends the first two years evaluating whether each new hire’s performance matches expectations.

Using information pulled from a variety of assessments, including the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measure of Academic Progress, the Deerfield district has preliminary data that 85 percent of the people it hired for 2014-15 had a positive impact on students.

“We’re to the point now where we have such faith in our hiring protocols that résumés and letters of recommendation take a backseat to the online application,” Fisher said.

The Cleveland school district started analyzing data four years ago to increase the diversity of its workforce. At the time, 85 percent of its 40,000 students—but only one-quarter of its teachers—identified themselves as a person of color. The Ohio district set a goal to bump up that teacher ratio to 30 percent of new hires; those in charge of recruitment met every two weeks to review data and check applicant-pool statistics.

“Tracking that information drove our strategy,” said chief talent officer Lora Cover.The district surpassed its goal. Thirty-eight percent of the teachers hired for 2014-15 identified themselves as a person of color, upping the districtwide statistic to 34 percent.

Cleveland’s data also verified that early hiring is essential: Of the teachers hired through June 2014 for the 2014-15 school year, 14 percent were rated as “accomplished” (the highest rating) using an evaluation that includes student-achievement data; only 2 percent of those hired in July and August shared that designation.

The district is now transitioning to the Workday Human Capital Management system, a cloud-based application suite that Cover says “will give us a much more robust set of data and a much easier way to pull it.”

With just under 14,000 instructional staff members and 212,000 students, the massive Hillsborough County district in Tampa, Fla., started working with TNTP last fall to be more strategic about where to take recruiting trips to career fairs—and avoid places that have traditionally turned out weak applicants. Summer hires alone account for 1,200 new employees in the district.

“I knew I was going to hire 600 elementary teachers this past year based on trend data through attrition, resignation, and leave of absence,” said Dena Collins, the general manager of Hillsborough’s personnel services. “Predicting those numbers well in advance is the easy part.”

Finding the Right Fit

The hard part, she said, is making sure candidates are well-suited—geographically and culturally—for the school environments in which they will be assigned.

In Tennessee, Sheila Redick can relate. “Something we’ve analyzed multiple times here is to see if there’s a profile of a candidate who tends to do better in an urban setting, and unfortunately, there isn’t,” said the director of talent management for the Shelby County district. Using the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s annual Report Card on the Effectiveness of TeacherTraining Programs, the 100,000-student district has, however, discovered that Teach For America candidates tend to perform as well as or better in low-performing schools and high-needs subject areas than new hires from other sources—a finding that helps guide its recruitment strategy.

While believing that better data lead to better hiring decisions, Dale S. Rose, the president of consulting firm 3D Group, based in Emeryville, Calif., cautions against putting too much emphasis on “big data with blunt data points.” The author of Hire Better Teachers Now: Using the Science of Selection to Find the Best Teachers for Your School, Rose said screening candidates “is a contact sport. You’ve got to get them in the classroom, talk to them.”

Even Fraynd from TeacherMatch acknowledges that revolutionary software programs—including those from his company, which adjust weighting and other factors to make them more predictive over time for particular locales—can only go so far.

“The big data can get you that crop of people who are statistically going to move the needle,” he said, “but you still need to know if those folks are going to be a good fit.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as More Districts Mine Data to Refine Hiring

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