By guestblogger Laurie Walters, a veteran teacher at Los Angeles Unified School District who has been teaching students for over 30 years. She was also a member of the Educators 4 Excellence-LA 2013 Teacher Policy Team on attracting and retaining teachers.
As a veteran teacher, I hear a lot about the importance of providing our students with 21st century skills. I’m often left scratching my head every time I watch our schools employ antiquated practices when it comes to setting themselves up to be successful.
Nowhere is this more pervasive than in the way many schools go about hiring teachers. This includes the practices in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second largest public school district. This district, where I currently work, still operates under a contractual system of “forced placement” where principals must make hiring decisions based solely on a candidate’s seniority and, if applicable, license area. Characteristics such as performance or mission, vision and culture fit hold no weight. It’s a system no modern organization would utilize to make hiring decisions, yet public schools do it year after year.
Not surprisingly, our schools end up with high teacher attrition and low student achievement. In LAUSD, more than ten percent of teachers are hired after the first day of school has already begun, and sixteen percent of educators in low-income schools are teaching outside their area of expertise. The median career length at a LAUSD school is less than three years and sixty percent of teachers leave the profession entirely within five years. Despite the obvious goal of bringing qualified and passionate teachers into the classroom, we’re setting ourselves up to fail before educators even reach the classroom.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Part of the problem is that most hiring decisions happen at the district level instead of the school level. As a result, both employers and candidates can’t screen each other for a proper fit. We need our district and union to agree to a system of mutual consent hiring, which decentralizes the process and gives employees and employers more choice and power over these critical decisions that affect our students, schools and careers. Principals should have the ability to base hiring decisions on a variety of factors and not just seniority. Teachers as well should be empowered to seek out schools that align best with their career objectives. We strongly believe schools should have thoughtful hiring processes that include diverse stakeholders such as teachers, community people, administrators, and perhaps students, and provide candidates with ample information to determine the best fit for schools and teachers. This was one of the recommendations a group of Educators 4 Excellence –LA members outlined in a policy paper released in June called Building for the Future: Attracting and Retaining Great Teachers in Hard to Staff Schools. I was a member of this all-teacher policy team and focused on ways districts can improve the hiring process for teachers and schools.
Instead of a rigid, top-down approach, our districts should empower local schools to tap into the collective potential of teachers, leaders and the community.
Not only should schools have more control over hiring, but they should also use the opportunity to get the entire school community invested in these decisions. That’s why the Policy Team of Teachers at E4E recommended the development of a “hiring toolkit,” which would provide a protocol for establishing hiring committees made up of teachers, school leaders and community members. The toolkit would also provide guiding questions for candidates, criteria for evaluating demo lessons and customizable rubrics for evaluating prospective teachers based on school goals, culture and mission.
What’s more, our districts must tap into and reward a teacher’s willingness to work in challenging environments. Our teacher-led team recommended using financial and non-financial means to incentivize teachers and principals to work in high needs schools. While much attention is often paid to financial incentives, I believe it’s critical that districts also offer non-monetary ways to attract talent to challenging schools. Principals should receive increased autonomy around hiring, curriculum and professional development while teachers should be provided leadership opportunities so they can advance in their careers while remaining in the classroom. Of course, there is a meaningful place for money in this conversation about attracting and keeping talent. Our districts can recognize great educators with financial rewards for teaching in high-need areas and helping to close the achievement gap. Money alone, however, won’t keep great talent. Like any talent-driven enterprise, our principals should to be trained in smart retention strategies and districts should provide pathways for teachers to lead, support peers and share best practices.
Better hiring alone won’t solve our retention issues, but it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, we can’t snap our fingers and put these policies into place. We need the support of elected officials, policy makers and union leaders who need to understand their role in positioning teachers for success from the beginning. Stakeholders—from our mayors to our parents—need to realize exactly what we have to lose and gain when it comes to hiring, developing and keeping excellent teachers. Every great teacher we attract and keep in public education is inspiring and training the future of our colleges, communities, cities and nation.