Finding the Perfect Fit

Finding the Perfect Fit

Administrators are using different approaches for hiring teachers.

From the outset, President Obama placed teacher quality at the center of his Education Plan. In a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., in March of 2009, he stated, “To complete our Race to the Top requires the three pillars of reform—recruiting, preparing and rewarding outstanding teachers. From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents. It’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.”


Since then, the president and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have focused on teacher evaluation as the means of securing the best teachers for American students. This is evident from the push to use student achievement data in teacher evaluation in Race to the Top incentives and waivers to states from some of the punitive measures of No Child Left Behind.


Some argue that teacher selection is even more important than teacher evaluation in placing the best teachers in the classroom. You could make the argument that teacher evaluation becomes a tool to retain good teachers, not remove bad ones—the prevailing wind in the debate right now—if the right person is placed in the classroom in the first place.However, too often the process of teacher selection is left to chance as districts fail to align their expectations for teaching excellence with the teacher selection process in a systematic way.  Inconsistency is often the norm.


Some site administrators are consistently excellent in choosing teachers for their schools. Those who pick well often do so from a clear understanding of what they are looking for and from a commitment to finding that in candidates. Others are not so good at this. Some administrators have blind spots when it comes to hiring and may make repeated mistakes in selecting teachers.


In reviewing hiring practices for teachers, districts would do well to answer a fundamental question: What do we know about good teachers—what they know, what they do and how their actions demonstrate their commitment to core beliefs and values?


A Behavior-based Approach


At the Genesee Intermediate School District in Flint, Mich., administrators have determined what they want in teacher candidates. Melinda McGraw, Genesee’s director of human resources, believes that an approach based on the idea that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance is the key to teacher selection. Therefore, scenario-based interview questions are developed to encourage candidates to describe past practice.


Mary Clement, a researcher at Berry College in Georgia, has written about this behavior-based interview (BBI) approach. The selection team must first identify desired teaching skills. Good teachers have content-area knowledge, know how to manage a classroom, assess appropriately, and reach students with diverse needs. Certain performance skills can be generalized across subjects and grade levels—for example, knowledge of curriculum, communication, professionalism, methods and planning.


Once this is established, the interviewers develop questions to elicit responses that display the natural disposition of the teacher. That is, if an interview question gets at how a teacher has responded to a particular situation in the past, this is an accurate indicator of how he or she would act in the future. A typical question of this sort might start with “Tell me about a situation where …” or “Describe how you have …”  A simple three-part rubric—meets standard, exceeds standard, does not meet standard—can be developed to rate the candidates.


Similar methods can be used when hiring nonteaching personnel. After the Genesee district identified a high turnover rate in support staff such as food service workers, bus drivers and instructional assistants, McGraw introduced a tool in the hiring process to help predict a candidate’s likelihood to persevere once hired. The Wonderlic Behavioral Risk Profile (formerly the Wonderlic Productivity Index) is an online or paper test that predicts if a candidate has the right combination of personality traits to be a productive, low-risk employee. Questions assess conscientiousness, work effort, persistence and turnover history. McGraw says that the tool identifies those staff members who will commit to the organization long-term and that it has indeed reduced turnover.


Measuring Teacher Disposition


Some teacher selection tools subscribe to the belief that teacher disposition is just as important as pedagogical skills and content knowledge in identifying excellent teachers. TeacherInsight from the Gallup Organization is another online interview tool, but it works by narrowing an applicant pool down to a manageable number of “people worth looking at in more detail.” TeacherInsight leaves it to the district to investigate pedagogy and content knowledge. It is often used as a first screen, and candidates must score in a range determined by the district before advancing to a structured interview.


TeacherInsight provides input on the overall orientation of a teacher toward students and learning outcomes. It is a measure of the thoughts, feelings and behaviors identified in a wide pool of exemplary teachers that Gallup has categorized from research and recalibration of their tool in practice. Desired teacher talents are organized into domains, and a number of multiple choice and Likert Scale questions assess the values and beliefs of teachers in those domains. These domains address “soft” characteristics such as:

• The candidate’s view of the mission of teaching
• The degree to which he/she focuses on goals and objectives
• The ability to display empathy and tune in to the feelings and thoughts of students
• Having approving and mutually favorable relations with students


The online nature of the tool and the ability to integrate with existing human resource tracking systems make TeacherInsight user-friendly for district leaders. The district determines “cut scores” to establish the size of their pool based on identified need. Once the talent pool is narrowed down to a collection of potentially excellent teachers, a district can use the TeacherFit instrument, a structured interview based on the same concepts underlying the TeacherInsight screening tool.  Extensive training is provided to administrators to accurately use the structured interview.grier


Hiring for Attitude


Heath Morrison, superintendent of the Washoe County School District (WCSD) in Reno, Nev., subscribes to the theory that schools should hire for attitude and train for success. Having borrowed some philosophical tenets from the Teach for America program, which places high-quality recent graduates in urban schools, Morrison leads an organization that looks for people with a “can-do” attitude when it comes to at-risk students. The focus in the hiring process is less on pedagogy and more on attitude.
Once placed in a position, teachers are monitored closely during the evaluation process before moving to a postprobationary status. Washoe has clearly defined its teacher “brand,” to use Morrison’s term, and constantly seeks feedback about this view of teachers. For example, principals use a K12 Insight survey to give feedback on the teacher selection process. This emphasis on strategic planning and quality control comes from the district’s use of the services of American Productivity Quality Controls (APQC) to align district resources and student learning.


The Urban Teacher


Teachers identified as suitable for a general setting do not always do well in an urban setting. Pressures of poverty, lack of resources, bureaucratic inertia and whipsaw reform efforts create a revolving door of teachers that exacerbates the lack of achievement of students. The attrition rate is high in urban districts and creates unstable environments for students. This rate is as high as 50 percent in the first five years at high-poverty schools, including urban, suburban and rural, and about 20 percent in all urban schools.


Many large urban school districts use teacher selection methods developed by Martin Haberman at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. In essence, Haberman believes that teacher selection is more critical than teacher training. You simply can’t train teachers to work in an urban setting if they don’t have certain personal characteristics to make them stick it out in the long term. Pulling no punches, Haberman distinguishes between “Star” teachers, who believe that all students can learn, and “Quitters,” who leave urban schools, not because they don’t have adequate teaching skills or lack content knowledge, but rather that the challenges of the urban setting are a continuous drain on their commitment.


Haberman says that Quitters cannot reach diverse children in urban poverty because, at bottom, they do not respect and care enough about them to want to be their teachers. The students sense this and respond in kind by not wanting them to be their teachers.


Haberman’s Star Teacher Selection Interview identifies the best teachers for urban settings. The interview is administered online as just one part of a comprehensive selection process, but teacher candidates must make it through this screen. Candidates must also produce a writing sample and provide a demo lesson in person, by Skype or video, so that screeners can judge actual practice too. Next is a structured-interview based on Haberman’s Star Teacher interview. The interview assesses an array of mindset competencies, including persistence, response to authority, approach to at-risk student populations, professionalism, fallibility, teacher burnout, problem solving and critical thinking.


By studying teachers who were rated highly by their supervisors in an urban setting, as well as those who were not, Haberman identified key teacher qualities. By investigating the ideologies, predispositions and abilities of the “Star” teachers, he identified teacher beliefs or characteristics that would predict success in an urban setting. The Haberman Foundation claims that 97 percent of teachers placed using the Star Teacher Selection Interview are rated satisfactorily in their first year by administrators and peers.


Terry Grier brought the Haberman approach to the Houston Independent School District in September 2009. He readily admits that it is not foolproof, as some teachers who fail the screen might be effective teachers, but he believes it is the best instrument to determine the values and beliefs of teachers in urban settings. Like Morrison in Reno, Grier makes it clear that staff can teach teachers how to teach if necessary, but they cannot teach a candidate to believe that all students can learn. Grier says, “They can’t instill empathy or the idea that high expectations for student learning are possible, or that you get nowhere by blaming a student’s background for his or her lack of success in school.”


The Traditional Approach


The more traditional method starts with generally accepted standards of excellence and a job description for teachers developed by teacher training colleges. Interviewers design questions around these traits, subjected to expert reviews and tested in the field. This process is based on “what is good.” These kinds of questions appear more “job related” and are more acceptable to HR administrators and teacher candidates who tend to view personality tests as disconnected “psychobabble.” Just read teacher blogs to see how unpopular online screens are with those who fail them. One entry on a ProTeacher blogs thread on screening methods reads, “It’s so sad to know that my career comes down to a test. Whatever happened to interviewing someone in person? Teaching is my calling, and a test will determine my fate.”


Teacher Selection Tools


The effectiveness of commercially produced teacher screening tools is measured by how many candidates receive a satisfactory evaluation during their first year on the job. Some companies are reluctant to quantify the success of their tools, and it is hard to validate the claims that they do make.


However, the extra value added by teachers as measured by student test data offers a new avenue to test the reliability of teacher screens. Districts can look at the value-added scores of teachers to measure the effectiveness of those they hired. Still, value-added does not provide feedback on teacher characteristics like drive, persistence and empathy, so inferential correlation is the best you can do to evaluate the effectiveness of the hiring process.


Gary Gordon, a strategic consultant for Gallup, is enthusiastic about a new version of TeacherInsight that was released in February 2011 that uses value-added test scores. Gallup has gone back to the core idea of defining an effective teacher before beginning a search. In partnership with Battelle for Kids, a nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, Gallup looked at the value-added scores of 5,000 teachers in grades 3 to 8 generated from Ohio Achievement Assessment. Gallup took the top 10 percent of teachers based on their value-added scores and developed a talent assessment based on their responses to questions to gauge their talent, behavior, thoughts and feelings. That is, the pool of exemplary teachers was defined by student performance, not by recommendations from principals and peers, as was the case with past TeacherInsight tools. As this is a new tool, data is being collected to measure reliability and to recalibrate based on results from the field.


Final Thoughts


Commercial teacher selection tools developed by field-testing questions about the traits and behaviors of teachers are used to statistically compare excellent and marginal teachers and to generate predictive questions for separating the two groups. It’s a statistical process and should not be used as a sole method of teacher selection. The big issue with personality traits is that excellent teachers in the sample pool may not have displayed desired traits when they first started teaching. As a result, many teacher preparation colleges suspect that personality screens eliminate new teachers disproportionately, as they have not had time to develop certain traits. Others disagree, believing that personality remains constant over time.


Many districts do not have the internal resources to track the success of candidates once placed. However, it is generally accepted that personality screens will reduce your margin of error by about 25 percent. They will not fine-tune your search to find the “best” teacher, but they will create a consistently high-quality pool from which to select teachers.


Personality screens are effective and efficient in narrowing the applicant pool. Job-related questions help to refine that pool further. In addition, selection teams should look to past practice to judge future performance by viewing lessons when possible. While it is important to develop your “teaching brand,” be mindful that there are dangers in always finding a fit for your philosophy. By doing so, you may overload your teacher pool for a particular trait when diversity is more important for overall organizational strength.


This can be a do-it yourself process. According to various research on teacher selection tools, if you have good questions and an easy-to-follow rubric, you can be successful 70 percent of the time, as even inexperienced teachers or administrators on a panel can score to a rubric. Specific training and practice can increase that to 90 percent.


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