Hiring Successful Teachers—Two New Studies Point to What Works and What Doesn't

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Teachers matter! This refrain is well-grounded in empirical research—differences between teachers have been shown not only to affect student test achievement but also a variety of later life student outcomes—and it is the basis for a concerted national effort to upgrade the skill-set of the nation’s teacher workforce.

Much of this focus has been on reforms to teacher evaluation, compensation and incentives, and professional development. Far less attention has focused on how to improve the front-end of the teacher pipeline, and in particular, the teacher hiring process. But two recent studies shed light on teacher hiring practices, what works and what doesn’t.

The lack of attention traditionally paid to teacher hiring is a lost opportunity, particularly because there is evidence that initially low-performing teachers are unlikely to catch up over time with their initially higher-performing peers. And once hired, it can be quite costly to remove a public school teacher who is ineffective. In short, making a good decision up front can save a lot of trouble down the line.

It is certainly not the case that all school districts have a great deal of choice among applicants (particularly for certain subject areas), but despite the rhetoric about a “teacher shortage,” many school systems have significantly more applicants than open positions. In fact, over the past two decades, the production of graduates from teacher education programs in the U.S. has outpaced the number of new hires by a wide margin.

So how do school districts make the best hiring decisions? Two new studies demonstrate the potential to generate applicant information during the hiring process that is predictive of teacher outcomes.

The first study is one that we worked on using data from Spokane Public Schools; it focused on an applicant screening tool used by the district to determine which applicants advance to the interview stages of the hiring process. Using the tool, school principals score applicants on a scale of 1 to 6 on 10 criteria related to their experience, training, recommendations, and fit.

The headline finding of the study was that scores on the screening tool are significantly predictive of teacher outcomes related to student achievement and teacher attrition. For instance, we looked for relationships between students’ performance on standardized tests and how their teachers had scored on the screening rubric during their hiring process. In terms of student performance, the difference between a teacher who scored in the 31st percentile vs the 69th percentile is estimated to be roughly equivalent to the difference between a novice teacher and a second or third year teacher.

Interestingly, some criteria evaluated using the screening tool—such as classroom management skills—are significantly more predictive than others—such as experience. This suggests there is room for improvement in the hiring process.

The second of these studies found a significant relationship between evaluations conducted during the hiring process and eventual teacher performance for applicants hired by Washington DC Public Schools (DCPS). This study also found that scores on the Haberman Star Teacher Pre-Screener, as well as some background characteristics such as undergraduate GPA and institution selectivity, are significantly predictive of future performance. But here too the study pointed to room for improvement—applicant evaluation scores did not appear to influence officials’ decisions at the final stages of the hiring process.

These findings demonstrate the potential for improving the teacher workforce through better hiring. The fact that there are only two studies that fully analyze the application process points to a gap, however. Not much is known about what districts do and how well they do it.

Perhaps the most important step for learning about how to make good hiring decisions was taken by Spokane and DCPS when they put themselves in the potentially uncomfortable position of evaluating their own hiring processes. (It was not clear whether their processes were effective before the research was conducted.) Doing so at other districts is likely to be fruitful.

At SPS, the district is now in a position to pursue several strategies to improve its hiring process. Some are minor, such as making the submission of letters of recommendation confidential; this has resulted in a marked increase in the letters’ level of candor. The district also provides more specific instructions to letter writers regarding what areas to address. Other strategies target long-term objectives, such as studying how to improve the placement, training, and evaluation of student teachers in the district.

School districts exert a significant amount of control over the hiring process in terms of the information applicants are required to provide and the design of screening and interview protocols. As our understanding of the relationship between applicant information and teacher outcomes improves, districts will be in a better position to leverage their hiring processes to select those applicants most likely to succeed in the classroom. The work carried out at DCPS and SPS is a promising step forward in that direction.

Dr. Dan Goldhaber is the Director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) at the University of Washington Bothell. Cyrus Grout is a consulting researcher at the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington, Bothell.

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