hiring help

School districts struggle when hiring new teachers. A new study suggests L.A. has found a better way

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education

Every spring and summer, America’s school districts face a critical challenge: hiring a batch of new teachers.

For some districts, the first problem is finding enough educators to fill their classrooms. But for many others, the central issue is choosing among the candidates — and administrators are left to develop their own systems for using résumés and test scores to predict who will do the best job.

New research suggests that Los Angeles, at least, has found a better way.

In 2014, Los Angeles Unified School District redesigned its hiring process to carefully cull teaching applicants. Each prospective teacher gets several scores for measures like college GPA, a sample teaching lesson, an interview, and professional references. Candidates who earn 80 out of 100 points get passed along for consideration to school principals. (Principals can still request an applicant who scored below that benchmark to be added to the hiring pool.)

The paper, published through the group CALDER at the American Institutes for Research, found that teachers who scored higher made a bigger impact on student achievement, scored higher on the district’s evaluation system, and were absent for fewer days.

Los Angeles’ screening tests “appear to accurately discern several aspects of teacher quality,” write the researchers, Paul Bruno of the University of Southern California and Katharine Strunk of Michigan State University. “The district may therefore benefit from its policy of excluding most low-performing applicants from employment eligibility.”  

The study is limited to teachers who were actually hired by the district, so it’s impossible to know how teachers screened out by the system — likely, the lowest-scorers — would have done in the classroom. Instead, the researchers compared the performance of the teachers who were hired with relatively high or low scores.

The differences were statistically significant but usually small. For instance, a teacher who scored substantially above average was about half as likely to receive a low evaluation rating (though only about 4 percent of all teachers fell into that category).

The researchers also examined whether schools benefited from the new hiring system. Indeed, it seemed to lead to small test score bumps in schools with higher shares of newly hired teachers, relative to what would be expected under the old system.

One consideration the study didn’t address was the impact on teacher diversity. Other screening systems — like teacher certification rules — tend to disproportionately exclude candidates of color.

The research is the latest in a string of recent studies showing that the way schools make hiring decisions can make a small but meaningful impact on students — and that many districts could do a better job at it.

When teachers are hired after the first day of school, students have been shown to do worse on tests at the end of the year. Still, some large districts had hundreds of vacant teaching positions at the start of this academic year. (Los Angeles, notably, had very few.)

Other districts, like Washington, DC and Spokane, Washington, have also created screening processes that predict teacher effectiveness.

Yet recent research suggests that more districts are actually decentralizing hiring decisions so that principals have more control over which teachers they take on. This may help ensure a good fit between teachers and a school, something research shows is important.

At the same time, the Los Angeles study highlights the potential benefits of a more standardized approach. Principals still make the ultimate hire, but have to sort through fewer applicants to get there.

Paul Bruno, one of the study’s authors, said finding the right balance — between autonomy and centralization — is a key open question. “That’s something we don’t know a whole lot about: how best to make that tradeoff,” he said.

dollars and cents

New York City teacher salaries to range from $61,070 to $128,657 in new contract

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
The pay increases included in the new contract are marginal. UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza (left) announced the new agreement Thursday along with Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Starting salaries for a first-year New York City teacher will increase over the next three years to $61,070, up from $56,711 this year, according to a salary schedule released Friday by the United Federation of Teachers.

Unlike the first contract under Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in 2014, the pay increases included in the new contract are marginal. In that contract, starting teacher pay jumped by almost 20 percent — nearly $10,000 — because city teachers had gone without an updated contract for five years.

[Related: More money for New York City teachers in contract deal, but is it a raise? Some are pushing back]

The 2019-2022 contract, announced four months before the current one is due to expire, includes annual raises of 2, 2.5, and 3 percent. Teachers have criticized the increases as insufficient to keep up with rising living costs.

“Furious my beloved @UFT wants me to support a contract that doesn’t even include cost of living increases when I teach in one of most expensive housing markets in USA,” tweeted Samantha Rubin.

Under the contract agreement, which still needs to be ratified by the UFT’s members, the maximum salary for teachers will rise from $119,565 to $128,657. The proposed salary schedule details how much teachers earn based on how many years they’ve been working and how many education credits they’ve accrued.

The union posted the schedule as part of a massive document dump aimed at explaining the new contract. Those documents include an outline of the proposed changes and the agreement signed by UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, which also made several policy changes that will affect schools and classrooms.

Friday afternoon, the UFT’s 3,400-member delegate assembly will meet and vote to recommend the proposed contract to all 129,000 members.

Some members have complained that the vote feels rushed. The agreement was announced Thursday afternoon and the memorandum was still being finalized in the hours before the delegate vote.

“It strikes me as sort of Republican Senate power play to just ram something through before anyone has a chance to read the contract,” said Will Ehrenfeld, an American history teacher at P-Tech and a union delegate. “I think it’s really unacceptable to not get details.”

Mulgrew defended the process, saying “everyone is going to have a couple of weeks to read the entire memorandum.”

You can read the full memorandum below.



Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman contributed.

Teacher quality

Teachers getting better under Tennessee’s controversial evaluation system, says new analysis

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick/Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s overhaul of its system for evaluating teachers has coincided with real and measurable benefits for students and teachers alike, says an analysis released Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The controversial changes — which since 2011 have required more frequent and rigorous evaluations aligned to student outcomes — have rankled teachers but also made a difference when it comes to teacher retention and students’ academic growth, according to the research and policy group, which backs extensive reforms to teacher preparation and evaluation.

Teachers earning highly effective ratings are generally being retained at a higher rate than less effective teachers across Tennessee. An increasing number of districts logged the highest levels of student growth on state assessments during three school years ending in the spring of 2017. And a recent survey found that 72 percent of educators believe the evaluation process has improved their teaching, up from 38 percent in 2012.

However, other research paints a much less encouraging picture of evaluation reforms, particularly a recent study commissioned by the Gates Foundation that showed few gains in student achievement under the extensive changes, including in Tennessee’s largest district in Shelby County.

The newest analysis spotlights Tennessee as one of six places that are pioneering evaluation systems aimed at improving the quality of teaching. The others are New Mexico and districts in Dallas, Denver, the District of Columbia, and Newark, New Jersey.

All six use both student test scores and classroom observations to evaluate all of their teachers every year, giving significant weight to student learning. They also feature at least three rating categories, a big change from the days when teachers were assessed as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with almost all earning the former rating.

Perhaps most significantly, each of the systems highlighted in the analysis link evaluation results to opportunities to earn higher pay. In Tennessee, districts are now required to differentiate compensation based on educator ratings or one of two other criteria: additional roles and responsibilities, or serving in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas.

The changes have happened in the decade since the National Council on Teacher Quality analyzed state and local regulations affecting teachers and called out evaluation policies across America as broken, counterproductive, and badly in need of an overhaul.

Not surprisingly, the switch to new systems has been hard.

In Tennessee, educators found the revamped evaluation model cumbersome, confusing, and opaque after its launch was rushed to help the state win a $500 million federal award in 2010. That feedback contributed to ongoing tweaks to teacher training and evaluation systems, outlined in another new report from FutureEd, a second policy think tank favoring evaluation reforms.

“None of these systems were perfect out of the gate,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, the group behind this week’s analysis. “System leaders recognized this and worked continuously to enhance system design, implementation, and use.”

But the backlash continues to bubble up in Tennessee, especially as the state’s messy transition to a computerized assessment has undermined the credibility of student test scores and prompted a recent legislative order to mostly disregard this year’s results in evaluations.

Last April, the testing problems overshadowed another study by Brown University researchers who reported that Tennessee teachers are showing substantial, career-long improvement under the state’s reforms. The finding was important because of some previous research that teacher improvement is relatively fixed, with most development coming in the first three to five years of a teacher’s career and then plateauing.

Despite the upbeat assessments in the NCTQ, Brown, and FutureEd reports, the future of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system — which is now fully integrated into other systems for teacher preparation, licensure, support, and dismissal — is uncertain due to testing headaches that call into question the evaluation’s accuracy and fairness. The Gates study, which also found that low-income Memphis students didn’t necessarily get more access to effective teachers under evaluation reforms, hasn’t helped.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has championed the reforms started by his Democratic predecessor and is urging the next administration to stay the course. His education chief says the latest analysis is a testament to the importance of incorporating student achievement into teacher ratings.

“Our evaluation model has developed the capacity of teachers to improve, put student growth at the center of our work, and established an expectation of continuous improvement,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “Even better, it’s working.”