School & District Management

Project Aims to Improve H.R. Systems in Big Districts

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 13, 2008 4 min read
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Two longtime education experts have launched an organization to push for transforming how the nation’s largest school districts recruit and groom the teaching and school leadership talent that they argue is key to improving student achievement.

Called Strategic Management of Human Capital, the organization was unveiled June 11 by Allan R. Odden, the director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, or CPRE, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and James A. Kelly, the founding president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The two will co-direct what they call an “action project,” which will be run out of the CPRE office in Madison.

The group’s chief focus will be on developing and advocating strategies, common in the private sector, to overhaul decades-old systems for hiring teachers, principals, and other leaders in the 100 largest school districts. Without recruiting the best talent and training people so their performance supports a school’s or district’s academic-improvement strategy, student achievement will stay stagnant, Mr. Odden and Mr. Kelly say.

“This is the [human resources] side of education reform,” Mr. Odden, who is also a professor of educational leadership and policy analysis, said in an interview. “The goal is to improve student performance through redesigning and restructuring the way districts, particularly the large urbans, recruit for and manage teacher and principal talent.”

The project, which Mr. Odden and Mr. Kelly have spent the past year planning, will have several components.

Task Force

One part is a 30-member task force of heavy hitters such as Minnesota’s Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, and District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee; high-level leaders from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; and experts on human-resources management. The task force will be charged with bringing attention to the issue and with putting new strategies to work in members’ own districts, states, agencies, and organizations that work with schools.

It's very clear that making headway on these complex management reforms will require courageous political support.

“This will take a wide breadth of participation to move an issue like this forward,” said Mr. Kelly. “And we are not looking for some sort of superficial consensus on this issue. It’s an action project.”

One urban school expert said human capital is a major challenge in city districts, though only a few have made it the central focus of raising student achievement. One is the District of Columbia, where Ms. Rhee, who just completed her first year as chancellor, has brought in new talent and gotten rid of employees she judged to be low-performing.

“There are not very many of our big-city districts that are using human capital as a central part of their reform strategies,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization whose members are 66 of the nation’s largest school districts. “If this task force has any ability to move the needle on this set of issues, it will be very welcome.”

The new venture has a Web site, where educators can engage in dialogue with one another and swap ideas. And an inaugural conference for invited district and state leaders is scheduled for November. There, participants will learn from in-depth case studies on districts and organizations such as New Leaders for New Schools, a nontraditional principal-training program, that are already using talent-management strategies to improve instruction and raise student achievement.

Attracting Top Talent

“Step number one in all of this is that you can get top talent if you work at it,” said Mr. Odden, pointing to Boston, Chicago, and New York City as examples where district leaders now recruit new teachers from top universities in their regions, partner with outside talent-management organizations such as the New Teacher Project, and operate their own programs for grooming teachers and principals.

“But until recently,” he said, “nearly every district sort of got who applied, and oftentimes, they didn’t even get the best of who applied, because they waited so late to hire.”

But, Mr. Odden emphasized, it’s not enough to bring talent in. “You’ve got to manage that talent and help them acquire the skills and knowledge to do the job really well, and align that with your plan for producing more kids who are learning,” he said.

In many urban districts, there may be a slew of obstacles to adopting such an approach, Mr. Casserly said.

“There are just huge issues with governance, money, union contracts, working conditions, as well as huge logistical and operational problems,” he said.

The co-directors of the project agree that political will is a necessity in overcoming bureaucratic challenges and resistance to change. “Making headway on these complex management reforms will require courageous political support,” Mr. Kelly said.

The project is supported by $2 million from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and $1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Both philanthropies also provide support to Education Week.

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 2008 edition of Education Week as Project Aims to Improve H.R. Systems in Big Districts

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