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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.

June 28, 2013

Low-income high-achievers: How to increase applications for selective universities

Expanding college opportunitiesThis Wednesday, June 26th, I attended a Brookings Institute event hosted by the Hamilton Project: “The Economic Imperative of Expanding College Opportunity.” There were two panels during the meeting, the first of which focused on low-income, high-achieving students’ college application behaviors compared to their high-income, high-achieving peers. The panel discussed findings and policy implications based on the academic paper released by Caroline Hoxby of Stanford University and Sarah Turner of the University of Virginia, entitled “Informing Students about Their College Options: A Proposal for Broadening the Expanding College Opportunities Project.”

As a panel discussant, Hoxby offered her unique perspective on the success of providing low-cost (~$6/student) interventions geared towards low-income, high-achieving students. In developing and testing the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) Project, she and Turner created customized, student-centered information packets on the college application process for each student who was randomly selected to participate in the study. Their goal was to determine to what extent (if at all) the intervention—complete with 8 fee waivers, testing requirements, and important deadline information for admissions—influenced students’ application, attendance, and graduation patterns at highly selective and peer universities. A “peer university,” according to Hoxby, is a university where a potential students’ level of preparation is comparable to students currently attending the university.

There is definitely an information gap when it comes to the data and guidance low-income, high-achieving students receive as they think about their postsecondary options. Many students are driven away by the sticker price of a university, while failing to understand that out-of-pocket costs for low-income students are often less than the cost of attending their local public university. Highly selective universities have generous financial aid packages designed to increase diversity and open doors of opportunities for low-income students; however, not all students are aware of these opportunities. The researchers sought to better understand the reasons behind the disparities in application behavior, and were able to dispel the following myths for economically disadvantaged students:

  1. Selective colleges are financially out of reach for poor students
  2. Low-income high achieves who apply to peer colleges fail to gain admission, or fail to thrive once admitted
  3. Selective colleges are simply not interested in recruiting low-income high-achievers
  4. High school counselors are not invested in guiding their low-income high achievers to apply to more selective, peer universities
  5. There are cultural and/or aspirational barriers that prevent low-income high achievers from pursuing admission at peer colleges

The ECO study found that outcomes for this cohort are “dramatically improved through low-cost, high-return information interventions.” The individualized application packets significantly altered the application behaviors of low-income, high-achieving students by prompting them to apply to more selective, peer universities. The ECO intervention was linked to the following results and conclusions:

  • A 48% increase in submitted applications
  • A 66% increase in the likelihood of students’ submitting  5 or more applications
  • Students were 48%, 42%, and 38% more likely to apply to a peer public university, peer private university, and a peer liberal arts college, respectively
  • Relevance is equally, if not more important, than quantity of information students receive about college admissions processes
  • Modern families seek objective information when making decisions about postsecondary education
  • Informational interventions are a much more economical way to reach students (compared to in-person counseling or site visits by college and universities) and can be equally effective if done correctly

I had a great time at the meeting and am eager to read the feedback, critique, and further research inspired by the findings of Hoxby and Turner! –Christine Duchouquette

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