Urban districts studying teacher applicants

Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week

Click on the link to the listing for “Ms. O,” and up pops a video with the 1st grade teacher leading a lesson on units of measurement using yellow strings of yarn: It takes one student in the video six steps to walk to the end of one strand, eight steps to the end of the second.

Near the end of the class, the students repeat a chant Ms. O has devised: “When you want to measure, you have to remember—it can be longer, it can be shorter.”

Click on another link and find a high school math teacher, whose geometry lesson draws on the District of Columbia’s notoriously hard-to-navigate traffic circles.

A third link takes the viewer to a high school history teacher putting students into groups to discuss the causes of the Revolutionary War—and analyze alternative courses of action.

All three 30-minute clips are actually teacher auditions, a key part of an online database premiering this summer in the District of Columbia school system that helps principals make determinations about which teacher-candidates to ask in for a formal interview.

The system is part of the 45,000-student district’s ambitious attempt to overhaul the process for hiring teachers to make it both rigorous and more useful.

“It signals to candidates that DCPS is a special place to work and takes teaching very seriously,” said Benjamin Lindy, the manager of teacher-selection design. “All of this is designed so that we present useful and distilled information to principals so they can make the final decisions about who teaches in their buildings.”

A handful of urban districts, such as Denver, Pittsburgh, and Tulsa, Okla., are taking similar steps to reorient their central human-resources offices toward what’s being called “strategic hiring.” The efforts consist of collecting a more-robust set of information on candidates, developing stronger relationships with teacher-preparation programs, and tracking new hires to determine their success in the classroom.

Foundations are playing an important role in the efforts, too: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s teacher-quality funding is providing support for the work in Pittsburgh, D.C., and Tulsa. Denver’s overhaul builds on local funding from the Janus Education Alliance, a public-private partnership, and from national players, such as the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, among others.

Although research indicates that there is no foolproof way to tell on the front end who will make a stellar teacher, human-resources officers contend that being more deliberative about hiring reinforces a message about the value placed on high-quality teaching, they say.

“You can’t afford to bring just anyone in. Every single hire is important to bring into the workforce individuals with the potential to raise the level of effectiveness,” said Jody Bucheit Spolar, the chief human-resources officer for the 26,000-student Pittsburgh district.

Raising the bar

For many of the districts, putting an eye on hiring practices also has entailed a fundamental shift toward serving schools’ personnel needs and away from transactional work, like processing licensing renewals and determining “highly qualified” teacher status.

“In the past, the HR mandates came out of the 5th floor of the office, disconnected with what was going on in the schools or what the needs were,” said Shayne Spaulton, the chief human-resources officer for the 78,000-student Denver district.

Teacher hiring is an object lesson in that disconnect, a peremptory exercise frequently consisting of a background check and a review of transcripts, licensing test scores, and a resume. Teachers that pass those benchmarks are then placed in the pool of candidates principals can select for interviews.

Such mechanisms generally don’t take into account a prior record of success—or for novices, provide an indication that they have the potential to be successful teachers given the right supports, according to Elizabeth Arons, a New York-based human-resources consultant for school districts.

Ms. Aarons, who headed New York City’s human-resources department between 2004 and 2010, said many districts don’t collect even basic data about hiring patterns—such as ratio of applicants-to-open-teaching position—and that the data they do have aren’t directly related to teaching skills. She recalled recently asking one district’s HR officers what they could say definitely about their hires.

“They said, ‘Well, we can say no one has a criminal record,’ ” Ms. Arons recounted. “And I said, ‘That’s our criteria? Can we up the stakes a bit?’”

No silver bullet

If the idea of strategic hiring makes sense, it’s complicated by the fact that predicting who will go on to be an excellent teacher is a relatively imprecise science.

Researchers have studied a variety of teacher characteristics for their effects on achievement, but most of those characteristics have fairly weak correlation to student performance.

One 2009 study by a team of teacher-quality scholars found that New York City teachers’ performance on the Haberman PreScreener, a commercial instrument, and on a test of math pedagogical content knowledge, appeared modestly correlated to student outcomes. It also found that teachers with a specific set of cognitive or noncognitive skills appeared to be somewhat more effective, on average, than their peers.

Research has yet to identify any one “silver bullet” feature that strongly predicts which teachers will go on to do well or poorly, noted Jonah Rockoff, an associate professor of business at Columbia University and one of the authors of the 2009 study.

Nevertheless, Mr. Rockoff argues that it makes sense to use the measures that are available, primarily because the tools are a relatively inexpensive way to improve overall quality, compared to mechanisms such as teacher dismissals.

“If you have a set of indicators that are easy to administer, they can give you a small edge about who to put at the front of the line,” Mr. Rockoff said. “Once the teacher is in the system, to get them to do anything is costly.”

The basic idea reflects hiring practices used by popular training programs, such as Teach For America. By analyzing student-achievement information from its teachers’ classrooms, the New York City-based organization has refined its selection process to identify attributes associated with its most successful teachers. At the top of the list: prior success as leaders and high achievement in previous academic or work experiences.

The New York City-based New Teacher Project, another alternative teacher program, has a similar system, drawing on interviews, writing samples, a short model-teaching segment, and a group discussion.

“We know we’re not going to figure it all out through selection, but we continue to focus on how we can increase the odds of the folks we’re bringing in being highly effective,” said Gregory L. Vincent, the group’s partner for program support and development.

An emerging body of empirical research also suggests that observations of teachers do correlate with student achievement, Mr. Rockoff noted, so auditions that give a sense of a teacher’s skills, such as those being tested in the District of Columbia, appear to be a promising addition to the mix.

Auditions of that type appear to be comparatively rare in current district practices. Nationally representative data on teacher-selection methods are hard to come by, but what information exists suggests that fewer than a third of new hires are observed teaching during the hiring process, Mr. Rockoff said.

The District of Columbia’s 30-minute taped teaching auditions are the capstone of a four-part hiring process. They are paired with teachers’ scores on several other measures, including an “error analysis” exercise meant to highlight pedagogical content knowledge.

A wider net

For school districts, the move toward strategic hiring extends beyond collecting better information for principals, but also in ensuring a pool flush with applicants year round—something that has required a greater cultivation of talent pipelines.

Leaders in Denver have worked to increase the number of pipelines to teaching, which now include traditional education programs, a district-sponsored teacher “residency” program in which teacher-candidates have a yearlong apprenticeship before entering an urban school, and alternative routes through the Denver Teaching Fellows program and TFA.

“By broadening our pool, we provided a community of exchange for best practices in teacher preparation, beyond simply providing a pool of talent for schools to draw from,” Ms. Spaulton, the HR director, said.

Both Denver and Tulsa have moved up their teacher-hiring timelines earlier in the year to recruit promising applicants early and to reduce the number of positions left unfilled before school starts.

In Tulsa, officials have tried to clear out some of the administrative hurdles facing principals by creating four “HR partner” positions directly responsible for meeting school administrators’ needs, such as an unexpected vacancy.

“It used to take six to eight weeks to fill a vacancy because it took so long for a principal to articulate the need through the bureaucracy,” said Roberta Cole Ellis, the chief human-capital officer for the 41,000-student Tulsa school system.

Under the new system, new hires are a phone call away, and the partners also attend associate superintendents’ meetings so they can anticipate upcoming needs.

The changes in Tulsa have spread beyond the central office. For example, a major supplier of teachers to the district, Oklahoma State University, will begin using the same teacher-disposition instrument as an entry bar to a new urban-teaching program to debut this fall—a change that will bring it into alignment with the district’s hiring process.

And in Pittsburgh, officials are casting a wider net by sending “recruitment ambassadors” to education schools at the top of national rankings. The district has had good results with science teachers prepared at a local university, so it plans to increase its recruitment efforts at that campus, said Jessica M. Brazier, the recruitment coordinator for the district.

Challenges remain

One of the pieces most districts still hope to improve is making sure that their hiring systems continue to improve over time by using student-achievement data in the mold of TFA to isolate parts of the process that most seem to indicate classroom success.

Many of the districts have plans to connect their hiring systems to their teacher-evaluation systems, but those are largely still under development. Still other districts have adopted pieces such as the prescreening instruments, but are not tracking to see how well the results correlate with outcomes.

“People are buying Haberman and Gallup [Teacher Insight] without the capacity to externally validate the measures,” Mr. Rockoff said, referring to those screening instruments.

Finally, he said, the systems are dependent on mutual trust between principals and the central office—not always an easy task.

“It takes leadership on the part of a central administration and buy-in from the principals to respect those choices,” Mr. Rockoff, the Columbia University professor. “The principal has to trust the district that they’re going to send a good pool of candidates based on a bunch of information that’s reliable.”

Ms. Spaulton, in Denver, also highlighted that tension.

“It’s really geared at providing information and resources to schools,” she said. “We heard back from schools saying, ‘We don’t want an extremely culled-through list of candidates we’re allowed to interview; we want to see the complete list.’ ”

Mr. Lindy of the District of Columbia schools said that principals provided some of the most important feedback for the development of the new hiring criteria, one possible solution.

Finally, there is the teacher labor market to consider: The ability to be choosy about candidates works only when there is a surfeit of talent looking to enter the profession.

“You can be very selective right now in who you’re picking in some of these urban districts,” concluded Ms. Arons, the consultant, “but that’s certainly not the case in all areas.”

Republished with permission from Education Week. Copyright © 2011 Editorial Projects in Education, Inc. For more information, visit

Hiring process

The District of Columbia’s new teacher-hiring model contains several distinct phases.

  1. Online application: Candidates submit a variety of information, including responses to two essay prompts.
  2. Pedagogical content-knowledge test: The candidate must analyze a student’s work (on an essay question or math problem, for instance), determine where the student is falling short, and devise a strategy for improving the necessary skills.
  3. Interview and model lesson: The candidate has a 30-minute interview and teaches a short model lesson, during which district officials look for certain skills and traits. A candidate can also submit a 10-minute video of his or her teaching.
  4. Teaching audition: The candidate teaches a 30-minute lesson, in a District of Columbia public school, geared to an objective provided by the host teacher. The audition is video-recorded and made available to principals.

The district can “fast track” to the fourth stage those candidates who have a track record of success in other systems, documented by references and student-achievement data.

SOURCE: District of Columbia Public Schools/Education Week

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”