Teaching Profession

Human Capital Key Worry for Reformers

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 01, 2008 8 min read
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Corporations have been striving to perfect the “people side” of their operations for decades. Most hunt aggressively for the right talent, train workers to produce at high levels, and reward top performers with promotions and higher pay.

In public education, though, school districts have been more passive in managing this vital asset. Most rely on colleges and universities to supply workers, and pay and promote people for experience and education levels rather than for their success in raising student achievement.

But as the pressure to improve schools continues to mount—and reform efforts fall short—a growing number of school district leaders, funders, education thinkers, and policymakers are zeroing in on developing “human capital” as the key strategy to improve student learning.

Bill Gates, the co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said last month at a gathering in Seattle that his philanthropy will “sharpen our focus on effective teaching” after seeing “disappointing results” from its grantmaking to change the structure of high schools.

“A model that depends on great teaching can’t be replicated by schools that can’t attract and develop great teachers,” Mr. Gates said.

In Washington last month, the new Strategic Management of Human Capital project held a three-day national conference that drew representatives from 40 large school districts, teachers’ unions, state education departments, and executives of nonprofit education organizations. Leaders of the initiative are arguing that “strategic management” of teachers, principals, and central-office workers includes recruiting and developing people and using the system’s performance as a guide to evaluating and paying them.

While speakers pointed out that some urban districts have overhauled their personnel operations and made progress in staffing classrooms, the diagnosis was largely grim.

“There isn’t any part of this human-capital system that is even close to working well,” Timothy Daly, the president of the New Teacher Project, said at the Georgetown University conference on Nov. 18.

Connecting the Dots

Strategic Management of Human Capital, which is guided by a 35-member national task force, was formed five months ago by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, which is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to help the nation’s 100-largest districts figure out how to attract the most promising teachers and principals and manage them effectively.

The project commissioned case studies of the work done by the nonprofit groups Teach For America, New Leaders for New Schools, and the New Teacher Project to help urban districts hire better teachers and principals. Case studies of work in Boston; Chicago; Fairfax County, Va.; Long Beach, Calif.; and New York City to address their human-capital needs were also prepared.

A Disconnected System:

Managing teachers is a scattershot affair, but could be aligned, as the New Teacher Project envisions.


SOURCE: The New Teacher Project

What’s been missing, experts say, are broad, thoughtful strategies that link the major components of school districts’ personnel systems—recruitment, hiring, placement, induction, professional development, evaluation, compensation, and termination—to their bottom-line goals for students.

But to do that, school systems will need much clearer agreement on what constitutes effective teaching, said James A. Kelly, a co-director of the project and the founding president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“When you’re in a school district, you realize that people don’t fundamentally acknowledge that things like recruiting, hiring, placement, and training have got to be connected,” said David Sigler, a principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform in Providence, R.I. “It’s not that there haven’t been lots of efforts, it’s just that most of them have been uncoordinated.”

For example, Mr. Sigler said, a district’s human-resources department may run a savvy, successful recruitment and marketing campaign to attract new teachers, but if the orientation and mentoring activities that are key to keeping new teachers on the job the first year or two are weak, those good hires can easily slip away.

“So you have a lot of work on one or two pieces of the whole human-capital picture,” he said, “but it breaks down somewhere else in the process, and districts end up with few payoffs.”

Mr. Daly of the New Teacher Project cited customer-service problems even more basic in some human-resource departments: calls from prospective teachers that aren’t returned and paychecks that aren’t delivered on time.

“The first time you don’t call them back, or you are late in giving them a paycheck, you reinforce every bad stereotype of an urban school district,” Mr. Daly said. “Districts have got to be the kind of organizations that smart, reasonable people want to work for.”

To work toward that goal, the next phase of the Strategic Management of Human Capital group’s work will involve spearheading an operation to persuade more urban districts to plan and initiate teacher- and principal-recruitment strategies, Mr. Kelly said.

Additional “action steps” for next year include developing and piloting a teacher-assessment system that measures instructional practices and uses the information to drive the way personnel are managed; studying human-capital practices in schools that have made large gains in achievement; identifying how state policies can be shaped to help district leaders manage education personnel; and establishing new partnerships between urban districts, universities, and nontraditional “talent providers” to train people with college degrees who want to enter teaching or school leadership.

‘Whole New Role’

Still, when district leaders work systematically to change how they manage their personnel, there are often major challenges to overcome, including labor-management disagreements. In New York City, negotiating work rules and how teachers ought to be evaluated with the United Federation of Teachers has at times been difficult.

Christopher Cerf, the deputy chancellor for operational strategy, human capital, and external affairs for the New York City school system, described the process to conference attendees this way: “Half the time it’s a knife fight in a dark room and half the time we work well together.”

The district is doing a pilot study of 2,500 teachers in 140 schools to devise a “value added” method of determining teachers’ impact on student achievement and reliable uses for that data, according to the case study on the city’s human-capital efforts.

Aminda Gentile, a UFT vice president who directs its professional-development program, said the union is open to using data on students’ academic performance as a way of guiding instruction and improving practice, but not for evaluating teachers. In fact, the New York state legislature last year barred for two years the use of student-achievement data in deciding whether a teacher is awarded tenure. (“Growth Data for Teachers Under Review,” Oct. 22, 2008.)

For tenured teachers, districts should think more about investing resources in good ones rather than funneling most money into improving poor performers, said Judy Wurtzel, a co-director of the Education and Society Program at the Aspen Institute.

“At times you need to walk away,” she said at the conference. Principals must tell teachers when they are performing well, and districts must create “compelling opportunities” to keep teachers interested in staying in the profession without leaving the classroom. Districts must find ways to compensate teachers who perform well and improve their practice in ways that meet the district’s goals, she said, rather than simply granting raises for adding more graduate credits to their resumes.

“It’s a whole new role for districts to know who your best are, track them, be in communication with them, and create opportunities for them,” Ms. Wurtzel said.

Robert B. Schwartz, the academic dean at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education who teaches in the university’s Public Education Leadership Program, a joint initiative with the business school, said broad agreement now exists that human capital needs attention, though “this was not an insight a lot of us began with when the standards movement began in the nineties.”

In the past year and a half, scholars at his program and the Aspen Institute have produced an outline that districts could use to manage all aspects of recruiting top teachers and principals, developing their skills, and keeping them.

Mr. Schwartz, speaking at the conference, called for new ways of inducting teachers. Districts could require first-year rookies to carry a lighter load that would allow time for mentorship and training. At the end of their first year, they would be evaluated to determine if they are doing well, need improvement, or should be counseled out. The second year, more mentoring and training would follow to shore up those who needed to improve. And in the third year, as a tenure decision approached, district panels would evaluate teachers based in part on student-achievement data and in part on observations of their instructional methods.

Those who win tenure, Mr. Schwartz said, would see a substantial salary bump and clearly defined opportunities to advance in the years ahead.

Principal Academy

In the Houston area, developing principal talent is the focus of two new initiatives backed by the Houston A+ Challenge, a nonprofit group that supports school improvements.

“For too long, we’ve looked for and gotten teachers and leaders who could just cope with the conditions that have prevailed in public education,” said Scott Van Beck, the executive director of the organization and a former regional superintendent in the Houston Independent School District. “I think that’s ass-backwards.”

Working with seven districts and one charter-management organization, Houston A+ has launched a regional principal-leadership academy to groom new talent. The academy has 19 students in its first class and is recruiting for its second cohort, Mr. Van Beck said. All the candidates spend their first year working in a school under a mentor principal and are assigned a separate, full-time coach to guide them.

And at Rice University in Houston, the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program was designed by the business school to attract students who want to be principals and earn a master’s degree in business administration. In partnership with Houston A+ and two charter school groups, including the Knowledge Is Power Program, the Rice program is believed to be the first university-based principal-training initiative housed completely outside a school of education.

“This kind of management takes a whole lot more coordination and execution,” Mr. Van Beck said, “but if we are ever going to close the achievement gap, it’s what we must do.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Human Capital Key Worry for Reformers


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