Getting a Grasp on One of the Most Critical — and Least Studied — Decisions in Education: Teacher Hiring

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Austin, Texas
For every teacher who is hired and tenured, a school district is making a roughly $2 million investment — and that’s a conservative estimate based on researcher Dan Goldhaber’s work.
Yet there is very little data on which to rely when making that consequential choice. No surprise then that hands shot up across the room Monday when moderator and Scholastic Editor-in-Chief Wayne D’Orio  asked dozens of professionals at the South by Southwest Education Festival if they ever made a bad one.
The work that Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington Bothell, undertook with the Spokane, Washington, school district to dig deeper and come up with some of that data was the subject of Monday’s The Science of Teacher Hiring panel.
“It just seemed so logical to have this opportunity to understand. (Personnel) is 83 percent of our operating budget, 62 percent is teacher salary and benefits,” said co-presenter Tennille Jeffries-Simmons, the Spokane chief human resource officer who opened the district’s process to Goldhaber’s four-year scrutiny. “We have to understand what is happening and why and get after it otherwise it’s not going to make a difference in the classrooms that 30,000 of our students spend their days in.”
One of the most surprising discoveries to come out of Washington state’s second-largest school district, with 1,800 teachers and 52 schools, was that they hired student teachers at “an incredibly high rate,” Jeffries-Simmons said. (The 74: New Research: 3 Insights into Molding Better Student Teachers)
More than 36 percent of those offered jobs in Spokane had done their student teaching there. That large accounting of the talent pool becomes more relevant when you consider that an elementary principal in Spokane with a third-grade opening would be looking at 200 applicants.
“We’ve got to pay more attention to student teacher placement,” Jeffries-Simmons said. “That ends up totally affecting our work force.”
The study also yielded insights into what deserves less attention. Factors like  teacher candidates’ GPA, where they went to school or whether they held an advanced degree were not strong tells of classroom effectiveness. (The 74: A Radically Sensible Proposal for Training Teachers: Make it Easier to Enter, Harder to Stay).
Goldhaber said other ingredients could predict effectiveness, like classroom management skills and a teacher’s value added score. The score is a statistical measure of how a teacher affects student test results that takes into account challenges like poverty and language differences. Goldhaber, more accustomed in his research to running into systems that don’t work, said Spokane’s formula— involving a 60-point rating system that starts at the central office and travels down to the school level—held up pretty well.
“The way the process works in Spokane forces a level of seriousness in hiring that is not always typical,” he said, comparing it to a principal who might get a recommendation from his most trusted teacher and end up doing very little data comparison after that.
Another takeaway from Spokane was the importance of letters of recommendation kept confidential from the applicant. Jeffries-Simmons said that helped the district glean whether someone was on the road to being great or already there.
Audience questions ranged from which candidate Jeffries-Simmons would hire if confronted with a solid teacher likely to stay longer in Spokane and an exceptional one likely to leave sooner (she won’t consider that in her decision); whether the system could be applied to top managers (harder to do because the statistical pool is smaller) and whether the findings could inform professional development once teachers are hired (Spokane is working on it).
Goldhaber said focusing on hiring the right people sidesteps some of the most volatile issues in education — the consequences of tenure and using teacher evaluation to identify ineffective teachers. That idea can be seen in the title of his Spokane study which borrows from the old carpenter’s adage: “Screen Twice, Cut Once…”

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