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The EDifier

January 17, 2017

How schools hire teachers

Much attention has been paid recently to teacher shortages.  However, less attention has been paid to how schools hire teachers, which has a direct impact on the shortage issue (which varies by subject and region).  Ineffective teachers are more likely to leave, as are those who don’t “fit” well with the culture or demographic of the school.  This, of course, makes sense – people don’t typically want to stay in jobs they’re horrible at, especially ones that are high-stress and low-pay.  There are lots of other reasons teachers leave, but principals don’t typically have a lot of influence over employees needing more time for family, a job closer to home, or higher salaries.  Teachers’ satisfaction with their work environment and school leadership is paramount to their retention, as well, but today we’ll just focus on who gets hired.  Previous research has shown that principals and other hiring managers tend to hire teachers based on their relational skills – motivation, honesty, enthusiasm, and caring – over their track record for student achievement.

As a personal anecdote, I was hired as a teacher by three different schools in two Texas districts. I never had to provide a sample lesson plan, teach a sample lesson, provide prior test scores, or provide prior evaluations. It’s possible that they checked my references, but I’m not sure. I was certified for the grades and subject areas I was hired to teach, which are often hard to staff, and was willing to teach in high-poverty schools, so maybe the lack of data-collection was due to teacher demand being higher than the supply of qualified teachers.

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A recent study shows that my experience is not unique.  The researchers performed interviews with principals and school administrators in six large public districts and two smaller charter districts to determine how data was used.  About 70 percent of the principals reported using teachers’ previous observation or test score data when determining whether or not to hire teachers who might transfer into their campus from elsewhere in the district.  This seems to point toward a trend in which principals increasingly use data; previous studies showed that only 40 percent of principals used student achievement data in hiring decisions.  As more states and districts develop teacher evaluation systems, we may see this trend continue upward.  Performance-based assessments are even less commonly used.  The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that only 13 percent of surveyed school districts required teachers to teach a sample lesson with students.

You may be asking why 100 percent of principals aren’t using data, and I’d have to answer that there are multiple reasons.  First, in most teacher evaluation systems in which a teacher is observed by a school administrator, over 90 percent of teachers are typically found to be effective or highly effective.  The lack of distinctions and the subjectivity of these evaluations render them virtually meaningless in the hiring process.  While principals may look negatively on someone falling below this threshold, they may also balance this data with personal recommendations or personal experience with the subjectivity of the evaluation system.  They may also have limited options for qualified candidates to hire.

Even value-added models, often used as components of teacher evaluations systems, are not fully reliable.  Teacher scores may change from one year to the next, or from one test to another.  If principals are aware of the shortcomings of the testing system, they may be hesitant to rely on it for hiring. Many subjects are not tested on an annual basis, making it difficult to use related data for hiring teachers who don’t teach math and language arts.

Finally, teacher observations are often biased against teachers in high-poverty and high-minority schools, as well as against men.  Given that high-poverty, high-minority schools are also the most difficult to staff, it makes sense that principals might take prior evaluation scores for teachers who have taught at other high-needs schools with a grain of salt.

While data on teacher effectiveness may be flawed, it doesn’t mean that we should throw it out entirely.  If a teacher consistently has low scores or has bounced between schools due to ineffective ratings, principals would be wise to heed this information.  We can use data to weed out some bad apples; we can’t necessarily depend on it to be 100 percent accurate or predict success.

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