Teaching Profession Opinion

Hiring Too Late ...

By Michelle Rhee & Jessica Levin — October 15, 2003 8 min read
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It’s no secret that better teachers produce better learning. Study after study has shown that some teachers—especially those with higher verbal ability, content knowledge, and at least one or two years of teaching experience—are most effective at helping students learn. Knowing this, one would think that urban school districts, especially those most in need of good teachers, would do everything possible to recruit and hire the most outstanding teachers they can find. Ironically, the reverse is true.

As a result of widespread hiring policies and practices, many urban districts place stumbling blocks in the path of teacher-candidates, allowing quicker-moving suburban districts to hire away the best applicants long before urban districts get around to reviewing their applications.

Urban districts place stumbling blocks in the path of high-quality teacher-candidates.

Most attempts to solve the shortage of high-quality teachers in urban, high-poverty schools have focused on aggressive recruitment. A recent study by our nonprofit group, the New Teacher Project, reveals that, thanks to such efforts, many urban districts receive large numbers of applicants for comparatively few teaching slots. One district studied received 4,000 applications for fewer than 200 spots; other districts received five to seven times as many applications as there were positions available. (“City School Rules on Hiring Found to Deter Teachers,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

Despite having many more applicants than openings to fill (including a significant percentage from teachers seeking jobs in shortage areas), each district we studied was left scrambling at the 11th hour to hire emergency-certified teachers to fill its openings. Ultimately, this failure to fill teaching slots illustrates why aggressive recruitment alone is not nearly enough to address the hiring challenges urban districts face.

What goes wrong? Specifically, districts shoot themselves in the foot by failing to make job offers to new teachers until mid-to-late summer. In one district, no hires were made until mid- August. In another, over 40 percent of applicants in line for a principal interview in August had been waiting anywhere from 2½ months to over four months. Fed up with waiting, large percentages of applicants—between 31 percent and 60 percent in the districts we studied—withdraw from the hiring process, often to accept jobs with districts that made offers earlier. As one applicant told us: “The hiring process took too long. By the time I was able to schedule a first interview with [the urban district], I already had four other interviews and offers.”

Because of their hiring delays, urban school districts lose the applicants they most want to hire.

Because of their hiring delays, urban school districts lose the applicants they most want to hire—and need to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. We found that, in one district, applicants who withdrew from the hiring process had significantly higher undergraduate grade point averages, were 40 percent more likely to have degrees in their teaching fields, and were significantly more likely to have completed educational coursework than ultimate new hires. Equally significant, between 37 percent and 69 percent of the known withdrawers in the districts studied were candidates for hard-to-fill positions.

In the past, many have blamed the slow hiring process on ineffective and bureaucratic district human- resources systems. Although most urban districts need to significantly improve their hiring practices, our work shows that three widespread urban hiring policies create much of the hiring delay:

  • Vacancy-notification requirements frequently allow retiring or resigning teachers to delay notifying their districts that they plan on leaving until summer, or even the new school year, making it very difficult to know what openings will need to be filled.
  • Teacher unions’ transfer requirements further stall hiring, often by giving existing teachers the first pick of openings before any new teacher can be hired. Timetables in local union contracts frequently undermine expedited transfer processes by allowing transfer decisions to extend until a few months, weeks, or in some cases, days before schools reopen. Collective bargaining policies that require schools to hire transferring teachers they may not want create additional delays by making principals reluctant to post vacancies and interview for fear of being forced to accept a transferring teacher they do not want.
  • Late budget timetables and inadequate forecasting foster chronic budget uncertainties, making administrators reluctant to hire even once transfers end. State budget timelines are a major source of the budget delay and uncertainty. In 46 states, the fiscal year does not end until June 30, and even then, states may not need to pass a budget if they seek an extension.
To capitalize on applicant interest, urban districts must move toward completing the vast majority of new teacher hiring by May 1.

While urban human- resources departments frequently assume that teachers who drop out of the hiring process were never serious about teaching in urban schools, our research shows this to be false. School districts are losing significant numbers of highly qualified candidates, willing and able to teach in urban districts, because they simply wait too long to hire.

For large urban districts to capitalize on the applicant interest and compete with their neighbors for the best talent, we believe they must move toward the goal of completing the vast majority of new teacher hiring by May 1. Our data indicate that applicants begin leaving in significant numbers in May, and that 40 percent of all withdrawers leave by the end of June. Districts can phase in this hiring deadline by committing themselves to hiring at least 30 percent to 40 percent of new teachers by May 1, and the remainder by June 1. To meet this goal, districts must move earlier and rationalize their selection and hiring processes. Urban districts also need to give teachers school-level placements early in the process; teacher-candidates tell us that open contracts that give a job offer but no specific school-level placement will not keep them in a district’s hiring process if they receive jobs from other districts.

In order to accelerate the current hiring timetable and keep the quality applicants from being snatched up by other districts, urban school systems should do the following:

  • Require resigning or retiring teachers to notify districts far earlier—by March 15 at the latest—and remove disincentives for early notification.

It will be impossible to move up hiring timelines without knowing about vacancies earlier. Union contracts, and, where necessary, state law, must change to require teachers to notify their districts by March if they plan to resign or retire, and remove any disincentives for doing so.

  • Move up and expedite transfer processes, and work toward enabling principals and their schools to consider internal and external candidates equally.

Earlier transfer timelines, including transfers that may result from school reconstitutions and closings, are necessary. Labor and management must also work toward enabling principals and schools to consider external and internal candidates equally. In some cities, promising models have emerged. In Clark County, Nev., for example, although transfers can extend through June, principals can meet with new candidates after April, and consider them side by side with transferring teachers.

  • Move up school-level budget projections and implement initiatives to protect the hardest-to-staff schools from budget fluctuations.

State and local governments need to develop and pass their budgets earlier, and district staffs must become better budget and enrollment forecasters. Earlier state and city education budget projections can jump-start teacher hiring, but only if administrators believe the benefits of earlier hiring outweigh the risks of overhiring. A protection fund may be one way to mitigate fears of overhiring, by shielding a district that has hired teachers early for the hardest-to-staff schools. Another option is instituting a small teacher- reserve pool so that when there is teacher attrition during the early months of schools, high-quality teachers, rather than underqualified long-term substitutes, can fill the openings. The costs of such initiatives would be quickly recouped in the added value of a higher-quality teaching force and compliance with the No Child Left Behind law.

  • Revamp human-resources departments’ practices to increase the hiring role of schools and to create efficient and effective HR systems.
Schools with greater authority to hire their own teachers will forge closer connections with education school students and hire the candidates more quickly.

In addition to improving their own systems for recruiting, receiving, processing, tracking, and placing applicants, human-resources departments must provide schools an earlier and greater role in hiring. Not only may this reduce tensions between central and school-level staff members, but we also believe that schools with greater authority to hire their own teachers will forge closer connections with education school students and hire the best candidates as quickly as out-in- front districts do. Rochester, N.Y., succeeded in placing all new teachers by June by providing significant financial benefits for March 1 retirement announcements and giving school hiring committees greater latitude to select or reject transfer teachers and begin hiring from outside the system.

Today, too many high-quality prospective teachers lose patience with the long urban-district hiring process and accept jobs in other districts that hire earlier. But in a school system operating under the policies outlined above, districts will know much earlier which positions will be open to new hires and how much money they will have for teacher salaries. In turn, they will be able to give teacher-candidates school-level positions much earlier in the process, before suburban schools have lured away many of the best teachers. This will mean our nation’s neediest and most disadvantaged students will have teachers drawn from the cream of the crop, not from a weakened and depleted applicant pool.

Given the strong and proven connection between high-quality teachers and student achievement, we believe this will be one of the wisest investments urban systems can make toward improving outcomes for their students.


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