School & District Management

Taking the Guesswork Out of Teacher Hiring

By Madeline Will — March 12, 2019 6 min read
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Imagine a world where school districts’ hiring departments can predict the longevity and effectiveness of a teacher before she steps foot into a classroom.

It’s a scenario that’s proved difficult to make reality, but a body of emerging research is making inroads. There are a handful of research-practitioner partnerships across the country working to improve teacher hiring through a strategic approach to job interviews, recommendations, and resume screenings.

“The basic question [behind the research] is, ‘How can schools do a better job of choosing among applications who to hire?’ ” said Aaron Sojourner, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota. “The current state of practice is pretty idiosyncratic, pretty uneven.”

Sojourner and other researchers partnered with the Minneapolis school district to determine whether teachers’ resumes can predict how effective they’ll be in the classroom and how long they’ll stay. The researchers studied seven years of teachers’ resumes, as well as subsequent teacher-evaluation and retention data on hires.

“In many ways, it’s very sensible,” Sojourner said. Researchers found that teacher applicants with relevant work experience were more likely to be effective and long-serving. And applicants who have a history of short tenure in past jobs were more likely to be poor performers.

Still, Sojourner said, the main value of the research, which is expected to be published this month, has been to come up with a way to take a resume and turn it into an objective measure of relevant work experience. The researchers developed an algorithm to match job descriptions and titles on applicants’ resumes to the U.S. Department of Labor’s occupation data set.

The data set is able to match occupations to the knowledge, skills, and abilities typically acquired in those positions. Instead of hiring managers trying to determine whether candidates’ past experiences will make them a good fit for teaching positions, the screening tool will generate that information.

“I think this has been the big obstacle for the profession: [Applicants] give you words to describe their past jobs, but how do you interpret those words?” Sojourner said. Hiring teams don’t always remember how past hires turned out or what their resumes looked like when they applied, he said.

"[Now], you can process the resumes and get a ranking” based on the district’s history of hiring and teaching, Sojourner said. “We’re not recommending this as a replacement for human judgment, for expert judgment, but as an aid.”

Officials from the 36,700-student school district in Minneapolis declined to comment, as the research has not yet led to changes to their hiring systems.

Another strand of research is developing in Spokane, Wash. The 31,000-student district there created a two-phase screening system for teacher applicants. The central human resources office scores applicants based on recommendations and the experience and skills on their resumes. Then, principals look at the candidates who have met a particular cutoff score and do another round of evaluations before bringing prospective teachers in for interviews.

A team of researchers found in 2014 that each of these screening processes had some predictive power in terms of teacher effectiveness. For instance, the effect on student achievement is roughly equivalent to being assigned to a second- or third-year teacher rather than a novice teacher.

Now, Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington, who was one of the researchers, is expanding on that research by studying the impact of professional recommendations and references.

He has asked supervisors who write letters of recommendation to privately rate the teacher applicants on their strengths and weaknesses in six areas, including cultural competency, classroom management, and student engagement. While the results are expected to be released sometime in the next few months, Goldhaber said the findings are “encouraging.”

Putting Data at the Center

The research-practitioner partnership in Spokane has helped the district’s hiring department make more strategic choices, said Kim Harmon, the director of recruitment and retention for the district.

“It’s helped us to put data more toward the center of several of our conversations,” she said. “We’re trying to take the guesswork out of hiring.”

Even so, Harmon said, they haven’t found a silver bullet in determining who will make for an effective, long-serving teacher.

“I think that this data is helping us to get a little more pinpointed and narrow” in hiring decisions, she said. “But I think there’s still a lot more research to be done.”

The small but growing body of research includes work being done in Los Angeles. In the 2014-15 school year, the district there adopted a standardized screening process for prospective teachers with eight components, including a writing sample and the delivery of a sample lesson. Applicants are scored based on rubrics, many of which are aligned to the district’s teacher-evaluation system.

Researchers found the screening process is predictive of performance, as measured by contributions to student test-score growth, evaluation scores, and teacher attendance. But it’s a trade-off for the district, since different components are predictive of different outcomes, said Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University and one of the researchers involved.

For example, scores on a sample lesson assessment are meaningfully predictive of teachers’ contributions to student achievement, while professional references are predictive of teacher attendance.

The Scope of Strategic Hiring

It’s hard to say exactly how prevalent these screening processes are in school districts across the country.

“Most school districts in the country are really, really small,” Goldhaber said. “They might not have the capacity or the need to have a formalized system.”

One indication might be a 2018 survey from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, which asked nearly 600 school and district hiring managers from around the country about their hiring preferences. Just about 5 percent said they had a quality protocol in place to assess applicants.

“There’s not a significant deep dive into candidate quality or instructional practices,” said Elizabeth Combs, the managing director of the institute, which is a division of Frontline Education, a K-12 software company. She noted only 30 percent of respondents said they asked applicants to provide a sample lesson plan.

Still, many school districts struggle with shortages of qualified applicants in certain subjects, like special education or high school math and science. For those districts, strategic hiring might not be possible, said Elizabeth Arons, the chief executive officer of Urban Schools Human Capital Academy, which focuses on human resources reform in school systems.

“If I’m hiring a math teacher and HR says to me, ‘I have one person in the pool,’ you’re going to say, ‘OK, send them over,’ ” she said. “Clearly, the more choices you have, the more strategic your hiring will be.”

Establishing a screening mechanism can also be costly for districts, Strunk acknowledged, but she pointed to research that shows that urban districts can, on average, spend more than $20,000 on each new hire, which includes expenses related to recruitment, hiring, and training.

It makes financial sense for districts to invest in selection mechanisms that help them predict which teacher applicants will be successful, she said.

After all, trying to improve in-service teachers through evaluations and professional development is tricky and often controversial, Goldhaber said: “Focusing on how do you improve the quality of teachers who enter the teaching workforce is a lot less politically contentious.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Taking the Guesswork Out of Teacher Hiring

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