Feature Pages 30-35
Hiring for Attitude
A school district looks beyond the credentials of prospective teachers to gauge their performance and core beliefs
BY DAWN EGAMI HUCKABY
“I had the opportunity to hire three or four teachers through this pool process, all of which were nines on a scale of 1-10. … We know how important it is to put a high-quality teacher in front of our students. This is an excellent example of the collective efficacy in our district where building capacity is an outcome that matters to all.”
— Ken Cervantes, principal,
Billinghurst Middle School, Reno, Nev.
The research is clear about this: The single most significant factor in increasing student achievement is having highly effective teachers in the classroom. In Nevada’s Washoe County School District, the 58th-largest in the country, a new strategic plan — Envision WCSD 2015 Investing in Our Future — is pushing aggressive reforms in employee hiring. With 94 schools to serve, the plan intends to bring the most skilled teachers to schools with the greatest academic needs.
District administrators recognized a need for fundamental change in how and why teachers are placed in the classroom to rapidly and dramatically raise student achievement. Screening of teacher candidates today goes well beyond a cursory look at college degrees and certification, and the standard 30-minute interview with a principal has been expanded.
Deputy Superintendent Jane Woodburn calls this process “Hiring for Attitude.” It is the impetus for an overhaul in how the school district’s office of human resources conducts business.
“Hiring for attitude … means being able to look at candidates’ behaviors, what they think and believe about their role as a teacher and how candidates demonstrate their belief systems,” Woodburn says.
The entire process deeply embeds Washoe County School District’s core beliefs — a passion for teaching; persistence; being an advocate for all students; believing all students can learn and be successful; engaging students and building relationships; and cultural awareness and responsiveness in the classroom.
The district created an innovative selection process that is fair and rigorous, assesses more than a candidate’s experience and education, and adds a new component that enables both human resources staffers and principal interviewers to measure a candidate’s core beliefs. Carefully crafted interview questions and task-specific exercises allow deeper analysis into a candidate’s qualifications and assess more accurately how effective a candidate is as a teacher. This process effectively determines if the candidate’s core beliefs match those of the district.
Additionally, to find the best teachers, hiring for attitude requires an expansive recruiting process beyond northern Nevada, reaching nationwide and worldwide to recruit the most highly effective teachers. Candidates from all over, most recently Spain, participate in the hiring process.
Modeled in part on Teach for America’s selection methods, Washoe County’s process was piloted in 2010-11 using many of the TFA principles, though with refinements to fit the district’s needs. Student achievement data from these newly hired teachers suggest the new hiring process is already making a difference.
Candidates first are prescreened by the human resources office. This includes examination of a candidate’s resumé and application to determine if the candidate meets the minimum qualifications. College degrees and teacher certifications are reviewed to determine highly qualified status, and confidential references are checked.
Qualified candidates then are invited to a half-day assessment interview that is videotaped. This is a key step in hiring for attitude. This half-day assessment includes a writing sample, a group activity, a 10-minute lesson-plan demonstration and a one-on-one interview. The interview committee includes two principals or assistant principals, educators identified by the district as highly skilled in observation protocols.
The day begins with a 15-minute writing prompt, which asks candidates to explain their teaching philosophy and core beliefs. This exercise helps interviewers assess the candidates’ written communication skills, as well as their teaching philosophy and their alignment to the district’s core beliefs.
Candidates then participate in a 20-minute group activity. Modified from the TFA model, this activity is a simulated professional learning community. Human resources staffers and principals/assistant principals script (and record) the group interaction, look for nonverbal behaviors and assess the candidates’ ability to work as a team, exhibit leadership qualities, listen well, act cooperatively and bring unique ideas to the discussion.
Candidates next move into a 10-minute lesson-plan presentation where the other candidates act as the audience. Candidates are provided immediate feedback from their peers regarding their presentation.
The day ends with each candidate participating in a one-on-one interview with a principal/assistant principal or human resources staffer. The interview is an opportunity for the candidate to reflect on the lesson-plan presentation and discuss with the interviewer what went well and opportunities for improvement. The interview helps determine whether a candidate can gauge what adjustments could be made in a lesson and how well the candidate differentiates instruction and self-assesses his/her teaching in regard to student learning — all skills teachers must demonstrate regularly.
The interviewer asks specific questions designed to draw out the core beliefs of the candidate. The interview questions are aligned with teacher competencies from the Washoe County School District Teacher Professional Growth System evaluation and with the University of Virginia’s Darden Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education model.
After candidates complete the session, the interview committee debriefs and discusses candidates to determine in which teacher pools they should be placed. Teacher pools are based on strengths in various subjects and on grade level. Interview notes highlight candidates’ strengths and areas for improvement, and digital video lesson plans enable principals to quickly review candidates for hire.
The Hiring Stage
When principals have teacher vacancies, they contact the human resources office, which recommends teacher candidates who would be well-suited for the particular assignment.
The hiring for attitude process allows principals to select a teacher quickly from the highly qualified and high-quality pool of candidates who already meet the district’s standards. This eliminates the tedious process of reviewing application after application, hoping to find a good candidate. Principals now simply select candidates from the pool and conduct their own final interview to make a selection. This streamlined process can place a highly qualified teacher into a classroom within one day, if necessary.
“I have not seen a more effective method of hiring teachers as I have seen with the system currently in place,” says Kevin Carroll, Sparks Middle School principal. “Not only does it save me time going through many applications and resumés, it also provides me a pool of solid, effective candidates to interview vetted through the expertise of other district administrators and personnel from human resources.”
A Washoe County educator for 20 years, Carroll adds that being a part of the selection process has enabled him “to contribute to our district’s strategic plan in hiring high-quality, effective teachers.”
Feedback from both the candidates and the interview committee is critical to the continuous improvement of the process. All candidates complete an exit survey about their perceptions of the assessment and interview experiences. Principals who have hired from the teacher pools are surveyed, as well.
If a candidate is not selected to move forward in the pool, a principal may appeal on behalf of that candidate. The original interviewer reviews the appealing principal’s input and the interview footage before issuing a final determination on the candidate’s eligibility for hiring.
Involving principals and assistant principals in the selection process has two benefits: (1) Administrators bring knowledge of teaching efficacy and school culture, as well as training and experiences in observation protocols; and (2) administrators’ participation builds buy-in to the selection process because they make recommendations to their peers and are therefore accountable for candidates placed in teacher pools.
Under Envision WCSD 2015, the district’s strategic plan, a deliberate focus is placed on the learning of the neediest students. While teacher pools help bring the best new teachers into the classrooms, the district also made other important changes to teacher hiring, notably providing a quick channel to get excellent teachers to high-need schools.
Under the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher Incentive Fund grant, teachers in some lower-performing schools are eligible for pay-for-performance and career lattice incentives. Current teachers have the first opportunities to transfer into Washoe County’s high-need and School Improvement Grant, or SIG, schools. This allows the neediest schools to hire before positions open elsewhere in the county.
In addition, the SIG schools are exempt from taking “overage” teachers — those who do not have a teaching assignment but who have a standard district contract. This means SIG schools may not receive a direct placement of a teacher, allowing them to interview and hire from the new teacher candidate pools ahead of other schools.
In collaboration with the Washoe Education Association, district leadership negotiated modifications in the master agreement with teachers this year allowing the use of factors other than seniority when addressing teacher overage and reductions in workforce. Teachers with minimally effective or ineffective ratings on professional evaluations, as well as those on a focused plan of assistance, are not eligible to volunteer for overage placement. And in the case of a reduction in workforce, the first to be reduced are those with minimally effective or ineffective evaluations.
A final strategy ensures a more equitable distribution of teachers within the district. Like other districts across the nation, Washoe County’s highest-need schools, based on students’ socioeconomics, have the most teacher vacancies. Schools in more affluent neighborhoods typically are more appealing to experienced teachers. After teachers transfer to open positions, the only remaining openings are usually in impoverished neighborhoods.
A solution for improving equitable teacher distribution, developed jointly with the teachers’ association, allows the district to hold an opening at any school for the purpose of overage. This practice, just a year old, already is leveling the playing field for all principals to obtain the most highly effective teachers for their classrooms.
Hiring for attitude, just one of Washoe County’s reform initiatives, is contributing to positive differences for students. Graduation rates have increased seven percentage points in each of the last two years, and the achievement gap is narrowing. In a state where education funding is ranked close to last in the nation, the school district is overcoming barriers to raising student achievement.
Placing the most highly effective teachers in classrooms is the first step in making a significant difference for every student to achieve the Washoe County School District’s goal, “Every Child, By Name and Face, to Graduation.”
Dawn Huckaby is the chief human resources officer in the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org