Teaching Profession

Some Districts Rethink Last-Minute Teacher Hiring

By Christina A. Samuels — September 19, 2011 7 min read
Bethany Guthard, one of 300 teachers hired this summer by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system, gives a lesson at Huntingtowne Farms Elementary School.
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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg district recently found itself in a situation other districts might envy in a time of tight fiscal constraints.

The 133,600-student district in North Carolina faced budget cuts this year, but, thanks to some last-minute changes, less money was taken away from the school system than originally anticipated. That welcome news sent the district into a hiring frenzy before the Aug. 25 start of classes. About 300 teachers signed on two weeks before school began. By Sept. 12, the district still had about 80 vacancies, for which principals were actively recruiting but had not yet identified a candidate.

Despite reports of teacher layoffs around the country, districts in some places are still hiring, and, in some cases, that hiring has continued into the start of the school year. Hiring may even pick up later in the year if federal lawmakers approve President Barack Obama’s jobs bill with its promise to restore education jobs. (“Potential Impact of Obama Jobs Proposal Under Scrutiny,” September 21, 2011.)

Greater Turnover

But late hiring, though a sign of relative financial health for a school district, is also a perennial headache: Studies show it can have a detrimental effect both on teacher retention and student performance.

To some degree, late hiring is an inevitability for schools. Administrators sometimes don’t know for sure how many students they have to serve until the school year starts, and volatile budget negotiations inject added uncertainty into the process.

The potential downside of late hiring was illuminated in a recent study of Michigan teachers that showed that educators who were hired after the beginning of the school year were twice as likely to leave the school and the teaching profession within one year.

And the turnover comes with a cost: The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a research advocacy group based in Washington, has estimated that losing a teacher can cost a district from $5,000 to $18,000, depending on the district’s size. (“Study Finds Higher Turnover Among Teachers Hired Late,” March 16, 2011.)

The Clark County district in Nevada has found itself in a situation in which financial uncertainty is forcing the district to rely on long-term substitute teachers in some hard-to-fill positions.

Once the fastest-growing school district in the country, the district has brought in more than 3,000 new teachers in some years, said William E. Garis, the deputy human resources officer. This year, about 500 teachers have been hired. But the district is waiting on the results of arbitration with its teachers’ union before filling some vacancies. The district is seeking about $37 million in union concessions.

“We just don’t have the luxury that some districts have to hire earlier,” Mr. Garis said. “Some districts are just more predictable in what their enrollment and funding are going to be.”

Some systems, worried about disruptive effects of last-minute hiring, are taking steps to make teacher-hiring processes more efficient.

Last year, Delaware created a task force to address the issue of late teacher hiring. According to research conducted by Jeffrey A. Raffel, a professor of public administration at the University of Delaware, in Newark, 60 percent of the state’s teacher hires for the 2009-10 school year started in August or later. School districts in Delaware generally start classes the last week of August.

Improving Practices

Based on the recommendations of the Delaware Teacher Hiring Task Force, state lawmakers adopted a policy that would shift student counts for teacher funding to the spring of each year, instead of basing funding decisions for districts on a head count taken at the end of September. The task force pointed to funding uncertainty as one reason teachers in the state were being hired so late.

Harvard University’s Center for Educational Policy Research, in a 2010 study of teacher-hiring practices in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, showed that teachers hired after the start of the school year performed less well on average than those hired before school began. Researchers based teacher-performance evaluations on value-added analyses of student scores on state mathematics tests.

Andrew Vaughan, the director of the certification, leadership, and preparation division for the Louisiana Department of Education, said that districts sometimes get stuck in a hiring routine that makes bringing on good teachers more difficult. For example, some districts in Louisiana hire in June and July for classes that start around the second week of August.

“It was generally last-minute across the board,” Mr. Vaughan said. “People didn’t see the importance of those early-hiring deadlines.”

With a $500,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and assistance from the New York City-based New Teacher Project, an advocacy organization that works with school districts to improve hiring practices, Louisiana selected four districts to receive help in improving their hiring procedures in time for the 2011-12 school year. (The Gates Foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week.)

Principals as Screeners

As a part of the Louisiana Statewide Staffing Initiative, DeSoto Parish, a 4,900-student district in northwestern Louisiana, created a streamlined, online application process. About 1,500 applications were screened for 40 positions this school year.

In the 9,500-student Monroe City district in the northeastern part of the state, part of the team’s work was persuading the school board to lift a hiring freeze that had been put in place until the budget could become final. The staffing initiative’s project members explained to the board the critical need for taking time to hire the highest-quality teachers.

The Louisiana Statewide Staffing Initiative also worked to train principals in how to sell their schools to prospective hires, and how to better screen teacher-candidates through effective interviewing techniques.

Daniel Habrat, the chief human-resources officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, said the district changed its hiring procedures to help bring new teachers into schools faster. Instead of relying on a “heavy prescreening” procedure of new teacher-candidates at the central office, the district shifted some of those responsibilities to principals.

“We had heard concerns that there was a bit of a bottleneck at the front end,” Mr. Habrat said.

“It’s a good thing for principals to be involved in that process,” said Tyler Ream, a zone superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg. “It lets them know exactly who they’re hiring.”

The principal-led hiring procedures worked well for Bethany Guthard, a 5th grade teacher at Huntingtowne Farms Elementary School in Charlotte. After working six years in Florida’s Broward County schools, she is among the hundreds of teachers new to Charlotte-Mecklenburg hired this year. Ms. Guthard drove around to different schools in June and dropped off her résumé. By July, she got a call of interest.

“I was worried about finding a job at first,” Ms. Guthard said. “But I went and put myself out there.”

Deep Talent Pool

The principal of Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, Carolyn Rodd, said she started the school year with three substitutes but was able to replace them with full-time teachers within a week of the start of class. She said one side effect of the teacher layoffs going on in other parts of the country is that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system has a large pool to draw from, including teachers who can bring growth data from the classes they taught in their previous jobs.

“We definitely want our most effective teachers with our highest-need students,” Ms. Rodd said. Huntingtowne Farms is a Title I school, and receives federal funds to help students in poverty who are not achieving at grade level.

Gwinnett County, Ga., is another district that hired a noteworthy number of teachers this year—about 660, said Frances Davis, the chief human-resources officer for the 161,000-student system.

That’s a far cry from earlier years, when more than 3,000 teachers would be hired each year, but the streamlined hiring procedures the district followed during those boom times are still in place. For example, budget estimates allow the district to start hiring in January, well before the start of classes in early August.

The screening is also done primarily at the principal level, with the central office conducting credential checks and criminal-background investigations.

And, like other districts that are hiring, Gwinnett County has found its teacher-candidate pool deepened by a number of experienced teachers seeking work.

“You have a highly qualified workforce out there,” Ms. Davis said.

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/Programs/Education.
A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Late Teacher Hiring Can Be a Boon and a Bane for Districts


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