Improving Teaching and Leading

Improving Teaching and Leading

improving teaching and leading

Lessons learned:human Capital practices In two connecticut school districts

October, 2014

The District Management Council (DMC) has partnered with LEAD Connecticut and two public school districts (Bridgeport Public Schools and Meriden Public Schools) to conduct Human Capital Opportunities Reviews. The goal is to answer the question, “How are highly effective teachers and administrators attracted, identified, onboarded, developed, and retained in each district?” This information will allow district leaders to make more thoughtful and data-driven decisions about how to make the best use of their most important resources – its people.

The following pages provide a brief overview of the process, identify lessons learned, highlight the key opportunities identified in the districts studied, provide a few tools for future reviews, and suggest a number of steps to increase minority staff in CT schools.

The Human Capital Opportunities Review Process

The methodology used to conduct the studies was as follows:

A. Collect and analyze hard data to deeply understand current practices and systems

A comprehensive data analysis provided a foundation of understanding. Data on the following topics were reviewed:

  • Details of certified and noncertified staff
  • Mentoring
  • Frequency and duration of professional development
  • Number of teacher observations by administrator
  • Teacher leadership opportunities
  • Prior roles of school and district administrators
  • Attrition and turnover of certified staff in past two years
  • School enrollment
  • Student achievement

B. Deep dive into the hiring process

The hard data research also included deeper inquiry into how teachers and administrators are recruited and hired. In this step, DMC worked closely with district leaders to review the hiring process for several new teachers and administrators, bringing the analysis from the abstract to the actual. DMC reviewed numerous data and artifacts, including submitted applications, interview questions and notes, performance tasks, and other key elements of the hiring process. This deep dive provided a detailed picture into a critical component of the district’s human capital approach.

C. Interview district staff to provide context

The hard data only tell half the story. Data-driven analysis was balanced with extensive qualitative research. Nearly 100 people in each district, including the Superintendent, senior teaching and learning leadership, principals, assistant principals, veteran teachers, and newly-hired teachers were interviewed. Interviews focused on what is happening “on the ground” and provided an opportunity to gain deeper insight into actual practice. The inclusive process also benefitted the change management process by providing staff an opportunity to share their concerns in a confidential forum and have a meaningful impact on future decision-making.

D. Survey a large group of district staff to shed insight on values and priorities

A wide group of teachers and administrators participated in an online survey to ensure the broadest possible input. District leadership was involved in refining and customizing the survey for different groups of teachers. The survey allowed DMC to understand how staff perceives the support they receive as well as their own development needs. This step also afforded insight into the values and priorities – both implicit and explicit – that influence current human capital practices within each district.

E. Identify potential opportunities for improvement

DMC mined both quantitative and qualitative data to identify opportunities for further strengthening the effectiveness of teachers and administrators, a key driver of higher academic achievement. At this stage in the process, district practices were compared to best practices, including DMC’s Human Capital Framework (Figure 1). The Human Capital Framework provided a model approach and highlighted potential opportunities.

Figure 1. DMC’s Human Capital Framework

Believing that a short list is better than a long list, this report outlines the most actionable and high-impact opportunities as well as commendable practices to build upon.

F. Plan for action

Leaders in each district had significant input in refining the list of opportunities. Following revisions, DMC, in partnership with district leadership, created an action plan for addressing selected opportunities. An extensive, inclusive planning process will increase the chances of successful implementation in the years to come. The goal is not to produce a report, but to drive actual improvements for students and staff.

Lessons Learned to Inform Future Human Capital Opportunities Reviews

The following ideas are important “lessons learned” from conducting Human Capital Opportunities Reviews in two districts. Districts interested in conducting Human Capital Opportunities Reviews should consider the following three lessons.

1. Adopting an expansive view of “human capital” can help identify impactful opportunities

“Human capital” does not have a common definition from district to district. In some districts, “human capital” refers to the human resources function of central office. In others, it describes the district’s recruitment and hiring practices for teachers and administrators. These definitions might be implicit, rather than explicit. While many districts may describe their approach to “human capital” as being much broader, their actions and strategies may focus only on a relatively narrow set of efforts. Ensuring that professional development, instructional coaching, evaluation and observation as well as hiring are part of the scope is critical to a comprehensive review.

DMC’s Human Capital Framework includes nearly allaspects of how districts build, develop, and utilize their most important resources – people. This includes recruitment, hiring, onboarding, development, staffing, and retention.

The Human Capital Opportunities Review process casts a wide net, investigating all aspects of districts’ human capital approaches in order to identify a short list of opportunities that have the highest potential for making a significant impact and can be implemented in the near-term. Assessing current practice through this broad lens highlights a number of high-impact opportunities that might have otherwise been overlooked.

2. Use structuredanalytical tools to deeply understand current practices

Understanding districtwide human capital practices is no easy task. Within one district, human capital practices can vary widely from school to school. From the hiring process for new teachers to conducting classroom observations, from planning professional development offerings to projecting vacancies, each school can have a unique approach. Adding to the complexity, actionable quantitative data on many human capital practices are often not readily available. Human resources systems and other district and school information systems are typically not designed to collect or report on key human capital performance metrics. In some cases, basic staffing data may not even be accurate or up-to-date.

In trying to understand practices that vary widely and have limited data, well-developed tools and analyses may be required. The following are two components of the Human Capital Opportunities Review process that helped:

  • Dive deep into randomly selected examples ofcurrent practices that vary widely and have little available data. A few specific examples of current practice can provide a clear picture of complex, varied, and not-widely-understood practices. For example, in districts where hiring practices vary widely from school-to-school and limited data are available, selecting a few new hires to deeply review can be insightful. A deep dive into a district’s hiring process is not meant to be a comprehensive review of all district hires. Rather, it is meant to closely analyze and assess the process for hiring a few new staff members in key positions. This “deep dive” into randomly-chosen cases may include extensive interviews with staff members and review of key artifacts (e.g., actual applications, interview questions). In areas where practices are varied and data are hard to come by, such as hiring, a few, rich examples of current practice can be powerful.
  • Seek broad input through interviews and surveys. Rich qualitative data from interviews and surveys can help provide context to quantitative data or shed insight on areas for which hard data are not available. Professional development is one key area of districts’ human capital systems that is very difficult to understand without interviews. Teachers, principals, and other administrators involved in determining professional development offerings can all provide invaluable insight into how teachers and leaders are developed in the district. Asking the same (or similar) questions of staff at all levels can often reveal different opinions and divergent views. An on-the-ground perspective is essential to a complete and detailed understanding of current practice.

3. Be inclusivewhen designing the team

Conducting a Human Capital Opportunities Review requires significant planning, implementation, and technical support. A team effort is required. Depending on district context, the teaming structure should vary. In districts where there is a strong districtwide approach to human capital, a small team of central office leaders will likely coordinate and manage the process. This will require reaching out to principals and other school-based staff for input and information, as needed. In other districts where key human capital practices vary significantly school by school, principals will need to be more involved in the process. A steering committee that includes principals and/or other school-based staff is a prerequisite. Involving a wider group of stakeholders will help streamline data collection, take into account variations in practice during the analysis phase, and ensure the findings are relevant and actionable for schools.

Highlights of Key Opportunitiesfrom Two Districts

Based on Human Capital Opportunities Reviews conducted in two districts, several important opportunities emerged. The following list is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather a summary of the high-impact opportunities that may be high-potential and relevant for other districts.

1. Opportunities to improve how new teachers and leaders are recruited and hired

In both of the districts studied, new teachers make up a substantial segment of the teaching force. Additionally, one district studied has a substantial number of new administrators. Since the influx of new teaching and leading talent has the potential to make a substantial impact on student achievement, it is important that new hires are effective.

1a. Define and articulate what makes an effective teacher or administrator

Without a clear understanding of what you are looking for, it is impossible to know when you have found it. To varying degrees, the districtsstudied have not clearly defined what the criteria are for successful school leaders and teachers. For example, job postings in one district ask for candidates who have been “successful” in prior administrative experiences, however success is not defined. The districts have opportunities to define rigorous criteria for new hires based on the skills, backgrounds, and experiences that are likely to make them effective in the district.

The work may include:

  • Looking at past student achievement and growth data to identify which teachers and administrators are most effective
  • Investigating what skills, backgrounds, and/or practices are common among the district’s most effective educators, which may include convening focus groups of effective district leaders, principals, and teachers to discuss potential criteria for teacher and principal candidates and provide input
  • Codifying a district standard for potential teacher and principal candidates with specific criteria aligned to educator effectiveness and student achievement

1b. Assess the critical qualities and skills of an effective teacher or principal through the candidate screening and interview process

Once central office leaders and principals have clear criteria, the next step is to align the hiring processes to assess candidates against the criteria. A systems-thinking approach is required to ensure that each step in the hiring process is focused on identifying these specific qualities.

Application Screening. Principals do not always have a systematic way of sorting through all the applications they receive. In many cases, principals in both districts reported that they might not have the time to review all of the applications. For harder-to-staff positions, principals might invite all applicants for interviews.

While the number of applications can be overwhelming, application screening can be a strategic part of the process. In some districts, Human Resources (HR) is responsible for screening applications. Some HR departments maintain a pool of “active” candidates by, first, screening effectiveness and, second, frequently updating based on candidates’ availability. Updating the pool based on availability may require automated outreach to candidates (e.g., robocalls or emails). This can also serve a marketing and recruitment function for top candidates. By centralizing the process, some districts have reduced the burden on principals and ensured that screening criteria are applied consistently across applicants.

Other tools can help narrow down the pool to high-potential candidates. Applitrack and other application management systems have built-in assessment tools (e.g., personality and aptitude quizzes) that can be tailored to assess the district’s definition of effective teaching. Althoughdistricts should be thoughtful about the reliability and validity of these assessments, they might help identify candidates worth pursuing further.

Interviews. In-person interviews can be a powerful tool for assessing candidates’ interpersonal skills and personality fit, among other important qualities. However, without rigorous design and structure, they can end up assessing the “less important” things or be inconsistent indicators. In both districts, the hiring process is not explicitly built upon a foundation of what skills and traits are most important for successfully raising achievement of students.

In one district studied, current interview questions for elementary teachers, for example, focus on creating a positive climate and working with other adults. In fact, only two of the eight questions asked in last year’s interviews focused on classroom instruction (e.g., “What would a 2nd grade literacy look like in your room?”) The other six questions asked candidates to discuss other topics, such as parent engagement, collaboration with colleagues, “professionalism,” as well as answer open-ended questions not tied to specific skills or traits (“Please tell us about yourself.”) As the district defines the skills and traits that are most important for raising student achievement, the emphasis of the interview questions can shift more towards screening for these critical areas.

Thus, the districtshave an opportunity to define the specific skills or qualities they are looking for in interviews, create questions that will target those skills, and design tools (e.g., rubrics) for consistently assessing the skills and comparing candidates to one another.

Performance Tasks. Performance tasks are activities or hands-on assignments designed to assess candidate skills that go beyond asking and answering questions. The extent to which performance tasks were leveraged during the hiring process varied between the two districts studied.

One district recognizes the value of performance tasks. During last year’s interviews for assistant principals, the top two candidates completed two rigorous performance tasks: (1) analyze the school’s actual achievement data and identify trends and potential next steps, and (2) give a mock presentation to the faculty on a high-leverage instructional strategy. These tasks afforded district leadership the opportunity to see the candidates in action. Some principals also see performance tasks as a valuable aspect of the teacher hiring process. One principal put it simply, “I thought I was going to hire this person, but then I saw her teach, and I instantly realized she would not be a good fit.”

However, the other district has an opportunity to embed performance tasks into the hiring process. Asking candidates to teach in front of actual students – particularly candidates who have had little prior experience, and therefore cannot provide past student achievement data – can be an invaluable way of determining whether or not they meet the district’s standard of effective teaching.

1c. Closely manage the hiring timeline to ensure the strongest candidates are available for open positions

In both districts, the hiring process for teachers typically begins in the spring. Some teachers receive offers by the end of May or June, but many other newly-hired teachers interviewed reported that they were not hired until after the school year had ended. Waiting too long to interview and make offers increases the risk that some highly-effective candidates accept offers from other districts before they can be considered. This is especially true in tight economic times, when candidates may find it too risky to wait for subsequent offers of employment. Having an accelerated hiring timeline increases the pool of high-quality potential candidates available.

In districts that tightly manage the hiring timeline, the process begins in the fall. Based on historical data and expected attrition, the district begins posts expected openings in advance of official exit notifications. For example, a district might analyze attrition data to see that they lose approximately 10-15 elementary classroom teachers each year. Therefore, they might interview and make offers to at least 5-10 classroom teachers, waiting to make specific school placements until the spring, as openings are finalized.

Policies and procedures could have to be modified to allow for these timeline changes, potentially including:

  • Data analysis and tracking of historical and projected attrition
  • Retirement and resignation announcements requested early in the year to provide earlier notification of actual openings
  • Initial screening of online teacher candidate done by central office staff
  • Interviews scheduled on the same day(s) to allow principals to meet many potential candidates at one time, as specific openings/ postings will likely not be known at the time of interviews

2. Opportunities to expand minority hiring

Given that it is important for students to have access to role models from a wide variety of backgrounds, many districtshave made it a priority to recruit and hire more teachers for color in recent years. Both districts studies had difficulty meeting there desired level of high quality minority staff. Obstacles both particular to the district and perhaps unintentionally created by state guidance contribute to this challenge.