Recruitment & Retention Opinion

Manage ‘Human Capital’ Strategically

By Allan R. Odden & Phi Delta Kappan — April 01, 2011 15 min read
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Education is a people-intensive proposition. By most estimates, 85% of school and district budgets are devoted to salaries and benefits, a figure that means that the manner in which leaders identify and develop their most important asset determines to a great degree the success of the enterprise. That figure also means that cutting school and district budgets significantly without reducing employees or their compensation is next to impossible.

In the awkward argot of policy and research, what was once known as “human resource management” has become “strategic management of human capital.” That phrasing may sound a bit cumbersome, but it neatly captures the new thinking about the strategic role that managing educator talent plays in a district’s success. When school and district leaders understand the potential for such strategic management, human resources will no longer be relegated to a back-bench position.

Strategically managing human capital in education is about restructuring the entire human resource system. That means that recruitment, selection, distribution, induction, professional development, performance management and evaluation, compensation, and career progression are all restructured to boost teacher and principal effectiveness in ways that dramatically improve instructional practice and student learning.

In order to accomplish current education goals to educate all children, and especially low-income and minority children, to world-class performance standards, schools need talented and well-prepared teachers and leaders. But the current system doesn’t recruit, train, hire, induct, deploy, develop, retain, or strategically manage the top talent needed to accomplish these goals. These shortcomings are most acute in the largest urban districts and in many rural districts.

The worst problems include:

  • Lack of a comprehensive and strategic human resource management system;
  • Historic inability to recruit the best and brightest into education;
  • Difficulty staffing high-needs schools, too many of which have excess numbers of unqualified and ineffective teachers and principals;
  • Chronic shortages of teachers in such subjects as math, science, and technology;
  • High teacher turnover;
  • Professional development systems that spend lots of money with little effect on teaching practice or student achievement; and
  • Compensation systems that pay teachers for factors unrelated or weakly related to effective instruction or gains in student learning.

No system with these severe and systemic dysfunctions can hope to dramatically improve its performance. Schools need two key ingredients. The first is talented people. All school systems need smart and capable people at all levels. However, poor urban and rural districts have been on the short end of the educator talent stick for decades. They suffer the most talent shortages and are most in need of strategic talent management. Thus one of their prime emphases should be creating strategies to recruit, place, develop, and retain top talent.

The second ingredient is strategic management of that talent. Just finding talented people and turning them loose is not sufficient. As businesses and other organizations have learned over the past decades, the highest performing organizations not only recruit and retain smart and capable individuals, they also manage them in ways that support the organization’s strategic direction. This requires aligning all aspects of the human resource management system (much more than just the personnel or human resource office) around multiple measures of teaching effectiveness. The goal is to redesign the entire human capital management system so that effective teacher talent is acquired, placed strategically and distributed equitably in schools and districts, developed to the district’s vision of instructional effectiveness and student performance, and retained over time.

Strategic talent management has two outcomes that allow educators to measure progress: student performance and teaching performance. Though the country has significant expertise in how to test students, measuring teaching performance and effectiveness and using the measures as a management tool are only at the beginning stages. If one objective of strategically managing human capital in education is to produce better classroom instruction, then related objectives are to create and use valid ways to measure teaching effectiveness and to redesign human capital management systems to ensure that all teachers are providing the most effective instruction. Furthermore, the measured elements of instructional practice must be statistically linked to improvements in student performance to indicate what effective teachers must do to boost student achievement.

In 2008, a set of district and state leaders came together as the Strategic Management of Human Capital (SMHC) Task Force to discuss the shortcomings of human capital management in public education and to further a reform agenda. This task force developed a set of principles for the strategic management of human capital in public education as well as reform proposals to seriously address human capital in education (see www.smhc-cpre.org). These proposals were bolstered by the teacher and principal effectiveness initiatives of the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program.

The Need for Strategic Management

If they are to be strategic, human capital management practices must align with a district’s education improvement strategy and its view of effective instructional practice as well as its goals for student achievement. But districts can’t implement a powerful improvement strategy unless they have both the management and teaching talent to execute the complex actions such comprehensive strategies require. Conversely, administrators can’t improve student academic achievement just with talented people, high expectations, and random acts of good practice. Administrators must systemically manage top talent around a well-designed education improvement strategy, including effective instructional practice if they’re to be effective.

This view of strategic draws from emerging approaches to talent management in the private sector. Current thinking in that sector emphasizes the importance of 1) organizational strategy as a basis for a human capital management program design and 2) the strategic management of human capital in carrying out organizational strategies to improve performance. During the past 15 years, many organizations concluded that people, talent, and human capital need to be placed on strategic agendas. These organizations found that strategic human resource management strategies should be formally linked vertically to their organization’s improvement programs and linked horizontally across all the specific HR elements. Many analyses have shown empirical links between these kinds of aligned human capital management practices and improved organizational performance.

Developing a strategic approach to managing human capital starts from understanding the need to dramatically improve organizational performance, specifically student achievement. The starting point for making the complex and politically charged human capital management changes is to understand that organizational performance— student achievement — needs to be increased by considerable levels. Once an understanding is reached that very substantial improvements in student performance are needed, districts need to figure out how to do it, that is, how to create their education improvement strategy. And central to an effective improvement strategy is an explicit and well-articulated vision of effective instructional practice.

Furthermore, to make the human resource management system strategic, the instructional vision must drive the organization’s human resource programs. For example, one study of the use of HR metrics, including special metrics developed on instructional practice, found that centralized professional development was more effective than site-based professional development and that consistency of effective instructional practice across classrooms within schools produced higher levels of student performance.

The next step is to identify the key staff who will carry out that strategy. The key district roles include the superintendent, chief academic officer, chief talent officer, the HR office, data and accountability, and the office of professional development. The key roles at the school level are the core content teachers, teacher leaders, and principals. These are key because instruction happens in classrooms and in schools. Teachers have multiple instructional leadership roles, such as grade-level leaders, coordinator of multi-grade teacher teams, schoolwide instructional coaches, instructional facilitators, professional development leaders, curriculum team coordinators, mentors, and so on. Principal roles can include lead principal, assistant principal for curriculum and instruction, etc. Principals also are the lead managers of human capital at the site.

After the primary roles are identified, the next step is identifying the key competencies for each key role.

For example, each teacher clearly would need the core competency of instructional expertise. In addition, schools want teachers’ expertise to increase over time. An explicit instructional vision can be important for delineating the range of necessary expertise, and a set of rubrics can indicate the level of performance of each individual teacher and how that aligns with the instructional vision. In addition to content-rich instructional expertise, each teacher leadership role would also have a set of required competencies specific to that role.

It should be clear that the description of teacher leadership roles overlaps the instructional leadership roles of the principal or assistant principal, thus providing a potential career ladder for teachers and a leadership development pathway through which schools “grow” school and district leaders over time.

Once the key teacher and principal roles are identified— together with their requisite knowledge, skills and expertise, and competencies — the next step in strategically managing human capital is to identify strategies for acquiring, developing, and retaining talent with these competencies. These strategies will guide the development of the specific human resource management programs, including recruitment, selection, placement, induction, development, career progression, and compensation, as well as such key decisions as tenure and dismissal. Designing, implementing, and staying true to new approaches to teacher and principal human capital development requires a huge change in the normal operation of school systems.

Three examples help illuminate these changes. First, many urban districts are discovering that by partnering with the two national talent recruiting organizations— Teach for America and The New Teacher Project — they can recruit large numbers of the country’s best and brightest into schools, particularly high-poverty schools, that have been starved for top talent. These new teachers have a substantial positive effect on student learning.

Second, the best way to organize teacher work is in collaborative teams working with formative student data to plan instruction and assessment strategies that are part of curriculum units. This way of organizing teachers’ work is the most effective context for teacher development. New teachers immediately have access to curriculum units, lesson plans, and the thinking of senior teachers as they discuss current formative assessment data and its implications for changes in instruction, and ongoing development can focus on the needs and directions of collaborative teacher teams. However, few schools currently organize teachers this way, though more such teams are formed each year. It will take several years— and changes in how teachers view “plan time” — for this way of organizing teachers’ work to dominate the education system.

A third example is the shift to develop multiple measures of teacher effectiveness and to use the results to promote, pay, dismiss, and grant tenure to teachers. Many critics have seen these elements of the education system as almost impossible to change, yet states and districts are taking them on, reinforced by both Race to the Top and foundation support.

A good example of foundation support is the empowering effective teachers’ strategies suggested by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. There are plans to implement these strategies in the Gates Intensive Partnership Sites: Hillsborough, Fla., Memphis, Tenn., Pittsburgh, Pa., and a charter school consortium in Los Angeles. These systems have agreed to develop multiple measures of teaching effectiveness — ranging from measures of instructional practice to tests of teacher pedagogical content knowledge to value-added measures of effect on student achievement — and to use them in teacher recruitment, the equitable distribution of effective teachers, redesigned teacher tenure, focused professional development, new forms of performance-based teacher compensation, and teacher dismissal. Washington, D.C., is probably the leading urban school district implementing these powerful efforts to assess teaching effectiveness and using the results to strategically manage teacher talent — and the district’s increases in student performance show that the strategies work. This represents “radical” and, as the Washington, D.C., example shows, controversial change in the “personnel administration” and human resource management of schools as we know them.

School Leaders

The strategic management of human capital is a distributed responsibility, extending beyond the district human resource department and its formal programs of recruitment, evaluation, and compensation. The key leader of the district, of course, is the superintendent. This person must place a high value on organizational improvement and all that flows from it: commitment to a vision of how to improve instructional practice and an insistence that all elements of the human capital management system be aligned with that vision. Many organizations that are talent-centric also have a chief talent officer whose prime role is to orchestrate the system’s effort to recruit, develop, motivate, compensate, and retain its effective talent.

But the “street-level” human capital managers in education are mostly school principals. School leaders are responsible for interviewing, selecting, evaluating, and providing feedback to teachers and teacher leaders and for overseeing these functions.


One underlying concept of strategic talent management is that for each key strategic job in the system— primarily those of teacher, teacher leader, and principal — strategic human capital management means structuring the HR system around the knowledge, skills, and desired effects those jobs require, and thus horizontally aligning each individual program element of the HR system. Herbert Heneman and Anthony Milanowski (2007) have developed a process and a tool that districts can use to determine the degree to which each of the human resource management program elements are currently aligned around the key competencies for teachers.

Strategic management of human capital includes the following core ideas:

1. The strategic needs for acquiring, developing, and retaining talent should flow from the education system’s improvement strategy, which usually includes an explicit vision of effective instructional practice and identifies the key people needed to implement the improvement strategy.

2. The strategic management of human capital begins with aggressive and comprehensive strategies to recruit — from whatever talent channel — top teaching and leadership talent into schools and districts. This is especially true for poor urban and rural districts because their challenges are the toughest in the country and deserve the best talent to address them successfully.

3. Teacher talent needs to be professionally managed to produce in classrooms and schools the content-rich, effective instructional practices that boost student learning to high levels.

4. To produce these effective instructional practices, improve them over time, and achieve the desired gains in student learning, the system needs to horizontally align all the key pieces of the HR system — recruitment, selection, staffing, induction/mentoring, professional development, performance management/evaluation, and compensation — to multiple measures of teaching effectiveness. Similarly, for other key staff, the HR pieces and related measures of effectiveness need to be designed around the knowledge, skills, and expertise that teacher leaders, principals, and other key district leaders need to successfully execute their roles in the improvement strategy.

5. In the process of designing and implementing both the improvement strategy and the human capital management program, the education system should produce a professional school culture that is characterized by high expectations for student achievement, a common vision of effective instruction, and accountability for student performance results.

If all of the elements of strategic human capital management work as intended, the district and each school should have sufficient quantities and quality of talent, and instructional practice should continuously improve, students should be able to achieve to ever higher levels of academic achievement, and districts should be able to significantly reduce the large achievement gaps linked to poverty and race that exist across America’s schools.


  • Heneman, Herbert G., III, and Anthony T. Milanowski. Assessing Human Resource Alignment: The Foundation for Building Total Teacher Quality Improvement. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 2007.
  • Odden, Allan. Strategic Management of Human Capital in Education. New York: Routledge, 2011.
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All articles published in Phi Delta Kappan are protected by copyright. For permission to use or reproduce Kappan articles, please e-mail kappan@pdkintl.org.


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