Guest Column

Two Worlds Collide in School: Staffing and High Stakes

by James H. VanSciver

How easy it is during a quiet summer day for education leaders conducting interviews for an 8th-grade mathematics teacher to forget the short- and long-term implications of the decisions they will make.

If that teaching position is one of only three 8th-grade positions in the middle school, a mistake will be costly, not just in terms of effective instruction, school morale and staff cohesiveness. The image of a school may be damaged substantially if a third of the 8th graders (if that is statewide assessment year) fails to hold up to the rigor of a high-stakes test required for promotion to high school.

How deeply entrenched in the minds of those making staffing decisions are the profound consequences of those decisions on the results of high-stakes testing? Do those individuals understand how the distinct processes of staffing and accountability are inextricably intertwined?

Hiring Ramifications
The ability of educators to soften the impact of a staffing choice gone awry is a function of school size, available resources and creativity on the part of those affected. It would be so much better to fully understand the significant ramifications of the appointment in the first place in order to appoint a quality staff member.

At times, the capacity to cover for a staff member or to prevent such situations is beyond the education leader’s reach. A hired candidate could experience an unexpected and untimely (especially for the school system) hardship preventing the move into the position. A teacher in a testing year may become seriously ill and a long-term substitute may be needed. A teacher’s spouse may suddenly be transferred to a job in another state, forcing a rapid relocation. Or there may be an unanticipated retirement in the middle of the school year.

Depending on the process used for securing replacements and the availability of candidates, that new opening may rip a tear in the accountability initiatives of the school that no professional development plan or curriculum reform can prevent or repair in time to salvage the test scores of the affected students.

Hidden Messages
So what’s a hiring administrator or committee to do?

First, follow a process that includes application file review, development of credible interview questions and reference checks. Also, ensure the finalist for a position has a firm understanding of the academic challenges the students are facing. Ask questions that will tease information from the candidates about their level of comfort and confidence with meeting the specific needs of the students.

During the interview, watch for body language that may suggest messages beyond the candidates’ answers. A wrinkling of the brow, an unintended hesitation or a movement of the eyes may disclose some discomfort or uncertainty. Undetected, these signals may lead to an ill-advised recommendation for employment or a hire that creates frustration for the staff and academic hardship for the students.

Quality candidates are sometimes difficult to find. It may be better to continue to staff the position with a substitute than to become saddled with a new hire who the administrator knows is not likely to have the desired impact on achievement.

The staffing process is one of the most important functions school leaders undertake. A clear understanding of the impact of these decisions will improve the chances of positive outcomes.

James VanSciver is director of secondary education in the Seaford School District in Seaford, Del. E-mail: