Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

The Human-Resource Factor

By Joseph Destefano & Ellen Foley — April 16, 2003 8 min read
Getting—and keeping—good teachers in urban districts.

A year ago in January, the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 made a “qualified teacher in every classroom” the law of the land. This is an ambitious and important goal, but it addresses only one aspect of the teacher-quality problem facing urban school districts. Cities need not only to put qualified teachers in their classrooms, but also to keep them there.

University of Pennsylvania researcher Richard M. Ingersoll has debunked the idea that retirement is creating a crisis in the availability of teachers. In truth, fewer people retire each year than leave teaching because of dissatisfaction with schools and school districts as workplaces. The problem is not a lack of people qualified to be teachers, but a shortage of people willing to work under the human-resources conditions that prevail in school districts.

In urban districts, teacher-transfer practices exacerbate this problem. Educators who remain in the profession often move to suburban districts, or to schools perceived to be better—higher-achieving and with lower proportions of low-income and minority students—within the same district. These facts virtually guarantee that urban districts, which arguably are composed of students who most need high-quality instruction, have a revolving door of teacher vacancies and repeatedly assign minority and low-income students the least-qualified, least-experienced teachers.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way. The organizational culture of school districts—how they recruit, hire, and assign staff members; how they distribute opportunities for responsibility, authority, and development; and how they evaluate and advance staff members though their careers—constrains poor urban districts in the choice of whom they are able to employ, and thus leads to the inequitable distribution of the best human resources. Urban districts must re-examine their contribution to these critical variables in order to create schools in which educators want to work and in which students want to learn.

For the past two years, a task force on the future of urban districts, sponsored by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, has been examining the role of districts in ensuring that all students gain access to high-quality learning opportunities. We began looking for ways to improve human-resources systems by studying lessons from the private sector. In the area of human resources, the private sector has a lot to offer school districts. Our research shows that companies that become successful the old-fashioned way—by earning it—do so because their organizational cultures are focused on attracting, developing, tapping, and keeping the talents of qualified people.

Based on the efforts of the School Communities That Work task force over the last two years, we believe three principles matter:

  • Make attracting, developing, and keeping good educators the primary role of leadership. Leadership’s primary role is to define the organizational imperatives that will demand and sustain excellence; that holds true for school districts as well as private companies. But rhetoric needs to be converted into action. Leaders, whatever their official role in the system (principals, board members, superintendents, and central-office directors, as well as teachers, community activists, and parents), need to work with their colleagues to define clear expectations, create optimal conditions, and provide the support that staff members need every day. As national Gallup surveys of employees have revealed, the managers that employees interact with on a day-to-day basis are more important to their productivity and job satisfaction than any other factor.

Several school districts have begun to challenge their own tried but troubled human-resources practices and have taken steps to improve school working environments. For example, in Boston, the Resource Action Team, or REACT, composed of staff members of the central office, schools, and reform-support organizations in the city, focuses on rethinking the connections between central-administration departments and schools. Using principals and headmasters as its “clients,” REACT makes specific recommendations to the superintendent on improving the delivery of a variety of services, including facilities management, operations, contracts, collective bargaining, school and central staffing, budget, and student assignment. Streamlining such procedures is a fundamental building block for creating a positive climate in schools systemwide.

The problem is not a lack of people qualified to be teachers, but a shortage of people willing to work under the human-resources conditions that prevail in school districts.

  • Get the best possible people into roles suitable for them and for the organization, and work to develop the skills of current staff members. Recognizing the nature of the marketplace for quality talent, understanding its dynamic, and positioning oneself to compete successfully are all things successful organizations do and do well. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don’t, asserts that “the best companies always start with the who, not the what.” School districts need to do not only a better job of planning for, pursuing, and recruiting high-quality professionals, but in most cases, an entirely different job. Creating conditions that attract qualified professionals, offering distinct incentives to candidates for positions in shortage fields, developing the talents of proven staff members, and offering incentives to staff members willing to work in the most difficult or challenging schools are what districts need to do, and do more systematically.

In the Houston Independent School District, all teacher-hiring decisions are made at the site, with ultimate responsibility resting with the principal. In addition to upgrading starting salaries for teachers and providing signing bonuses, the district has developed an alternative-certification program that has attracted career-changers and recruited teachers creatively, including hiring foreign nationals.

  • Get the most out of each and every person. In most traditionally structured school districts, seniority and rigid salary scales do more to shape people’s professional careers than any systematic application of a vision for human-resources development. Certification and seniority, not performance, are rewarded. The movement of individuals within the organization is not based on deliberate management decisions to form highly successful teams or to assign skills and talent where they are most needed. And leadership is not rewarded for developing talent, nor are leaders evaluated on how well they support the work of principals or teachers. Districts need to examine what happens to people when they join the organization; how they are helped to develop; how they are rewarded, supported, or sanctioned if necessary; and how they grow in their levels of responsibility and authority.

In Montgomery County, Md., district and union leaders have worked together to emphasize the growth and development of teachers. This includes a professional-growth plan for every teacher, a new evaluation system, and a differentiated career ladder for teachers. The district aggressively and successfully recruits new teachers on the strength of its approaches to professional development and teacher support.

Addressing these three strategies begins with data. District leaders need to understand the composition, distribution, and skills of current staff members. They also need to understand how working conditions—not just compensation, but also relationships with students, colleagues, and supervisors; the responsiveness of leadership; and the clarity of each person’s role, for example—affect the efficacy, and thus the loyalty and retention, of educators at all levels of the system. The few urban districts that have gathered and analyzed this kind of information have begun rethinking relationships within the district, especially among union leaders and school leaders, as well as involving actors beyond it, and reorganizing to put real resources behind critical functions.

Some of the potential changes in district policy and programs might include:

  • Targeted support services based on the composition, distribution, and skills of school staff members—for example, providing ongoing professional development specifically geared to (and perhaps located at) schools with large proportions of new teachers;
  • Improved leadership programs focused on finding and developing superior principals and which emphasize the development of a positive school environment;
  • Streamlined data, budget, and purchasing systems to minimize administrative “distractions” for school leaders.
  • Pay scales differentiated by field of qualification;
  • Alternatives to seniority and additional years of education as criteria for moving up the pay scale; and;
  • Incentive-based pay tied to learning gains for students or expectations and incentives for outstanding individuals to take on the toughest assignments.
For these ideas to have the greatest impact, they need to be implemented in districts working to embed key human-resources tasks within their organizational cultures.

Of course, each item in this list could easily be just a stand-alone, programmatic change if it is instituted in a district with a traditional human-resources system. For these ideas to have the greatest impact, they need to be implemented, as we’ve said, in districts working to embed key human-resources tasks within their organizational cultures. For example, targeted support services for new teachers are important, but they must be connected to how the district recruits new staff members and develops leaders. And, in particular, school and district leaders must commit resources and management support to these services as integral parts of each school’s and the district’s organizational environment.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, schools will increasingly be held accountable for student results. The legislation encourages states and districts to revamp recruiting and professional-development efforts for teachers and principals, but does little to address other aspects of the human-resources environment, which can create the context for success. In urban districts, attempting to meet demands for high student achievement while paying little attention to how district and school conditions and incentives support increased accountability may prove to be a fundamental flaw. It will take human-resources systems that are intentionally organized to support and develop high-quality teachers and leaders to produce the results we want and need for all young people.

Joseph DeStefano is the vice president of the Learning Communities Network, based in Cleveland, and Ellen Foley is a principal associate of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

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