Feature                                                   Pages 31-33


Front and Center: The Role of

Human Resources

An operation that’s strategic can elevate the work of principals. One that’s not can stymie district efforts.




Elizabeth Arons, who leads the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy, consults with urban school districts’ human resources offices.

The first contract day for teachers to report in August has arrived, and the lobby of the central office is filled with candidates clutching documents. As the superintendent makes her way through the crowd to get to the elevator, she stops to ask one of the new hires what’s happening.

The young teacher responds: “We’ve been in line for several hours waiting to get our paperwork done. I hope it won’t be too much longer — I am so anxious to get to my school and start setting up my classroom before my students arrive next week. I just got offered the position yesterday.”

Unfortunately, this is a scenario that happens all too frequently in school districts — last-minute vacancies, late hires when the applicant pool is already diminished, cumbersome paper-driven processes and principals desperate to get a response from the district’s human resources department about the status of their vacancies in critical shortage fields with no applicants. The result is a negative first impression among the new hires about the experiences awaiting them in their interactions with human resources.

In the school systems where I’ve worked, principals are quick to acknowledge that a high-functioning partner in the form of the human resources department is the best support they have. The converse is also true: A dysfunctional, compliance-driven HR division is the principals’ worst nightmare.

Talent Quest
We know from years of research that the quality of teachers and their instructional capacity have the greatest impact on student learning and on overcoming poverty and other obstacles to student success. Because 80 to 85 percent of most districts’ operating budgets go for salaries and benefits, HR’s role in finding and keeping great talent for every position is essential to improving student outcomes.

We also know great teachers will walk over hot coals to work for principals who support them and unite them behind a common vision. Principals, especially those in urban districts, depend on the human resources department to help them find and retain great teaching talent and to help improve those employees who are not performing at or above standard. Processes that impede principals from getting the support they need represent a major pain point. They also are antithetical to the best human capital practices.

If the human resources operation is to be a strategic and supportive partner, it must be organized to focus on the quality of the teacher and principal workforce. That requires performance- and talent-driven work, not just compliance. At the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy, an organization that networks and develops human resources/human capital leaders, we work with school districts to refocus the role of HR foremost on teacher and principal quality to provide support to the entire district in areas that include recruitment, induction, performance and career management, compensation/benefits and labor/management relations.

HR must shift from doing predominantly transactional work to these areas, which will expand teacher effectiveness. For each of these areas, we have developed a rubric with metrics and benchmarks for measuring success. There are multiple ways to measure the quality of a workforce and of the services provided by human resources.

For example, how do principals rate the quality of the applicant pool and whether they had sufficient quality applicants for each vacancy they filled? How many vacancies were still without a permanent teacher at the opening of school? A highly functional HR team will ensure candidates are hired early (before June), when the best applicants are available, so even when vacancies occur at the last minute, contracted candidates are ready to step in.

Multiple Services
How does a human resources office begin transforming its work from compliance driven to talent driven? It starts with the organization itself. Are there staff members ready to serve schools and principals by:

  • helping them find great applicants for every vacancy?
  • helping them document low performers and move toward either significant improvement or dismissal?
  • understanding the relationship between teacher performance and student achievement in the schools they serve?
  • ensuring each classroom has an effective or highly effective teacher who believes that every student can and will learn?
  • differentiating services for schools with more high-needs students?
  • helping a principal analyze and project talent needs annually?
  • working collaboratively with union representatives to solve problems before they escalate?
  • keeping principals apprised of progress in filling vacancies and on-board new hires quickly and efficiently?
  • supporting principals who work with low performers to help them either improve or exit?
  • ensuring teacher absences are low and that substitutes are always available?

While human resources staff must perform the transactional responsibilities that underlie much of their work, it cannot overwhelm the important strategic work that contributes to effective teachers and principals. Outmoded, paper-driven processes that are far too labor-intensive must be replaced by streamlined, computerized processes that free up staff to become strategic and supportive.

In New York City, which handles about 8,000 new teacher hires a year, we worked with the district to replace a three- to six-month on-boarding process for new employees with a 48-hour, online, user-friendly system that resulted in 96 percent of the new hires making the first payroll. During the prior year, only 50 percent of new teacher hires had their paperwork completed by the start of school.

We identified unneeded forms that could be discontinued and put all necessary forms online. We helped the HR staff connect the applicant-tracking and the payroll systems so data would not have to be re-entered; computerize the assignment of a local license; and operate fingerprinting functions throughout the city for easy access. We required e-mail addresses for all new hires and kept them apprised electronically of their progress toward completing all necessary paperwork. If a superintendent wants to assess whether HR is functioning at the most effective level, start by looking at the processing of new hires into the payroll system and the experience those candidates have as they become employees.

Conversion Work
Defining the “right work” for human resources depends on keeping up with research, which identifies the criteria that have the most impact on quality. For example, the highly qualified teacher mandated under No Child Left Behind turns out to have no correlation to whether that teacher will be effective in the classroom. Teacher attendance, however, has a high correlation with improved student achievement. Logical conclusion: HR should spend more of its energy and effort making sure teacher absenteeism is low (4 percent or less annually is a benchmark for public-sector employees established by the National Bureau of Statistics), not on ensuring every teacher is highly qualified (a compliance requirement that doesn’t correlate to student achievement outcomes).

The districts that are part of our academy have spent more than two years converting from predominantly transactional and compliance work to becoming strategic and supportive partners contributing to improving student achievement.

In Denver, the HR division created school support partners — staff members assigned to serve specific school groups whose configuration aligns with the instructional directors (the supervisors of principals). As a result, Denver’s HR division went from a 33 percent approval rating by the district’s principals in 2009 to a 90 percent approval rating in 2012, becoming a model for central-office support to schools. In Hillsborough County, Fla., the HR staff became so adept in the screening, selection and matching of applicants to vacancies that principals saved countless hours.

In Los Angeles and Prince George’s County, Md., the HR teams began a focus on teacher attendance, ensuring the use of daily leave was lowered significantly and making sure all longer-term leaves were not used as a means to avoid a less-than-effective evaluation. In the Shelby County, Tenn., district, strategic staffing practices minimized the number of forced placements below 50, with the intent for the following year of reaching 100 percent mutual consent for teacher selection.

Backing Principals
Just as human resources must be a strong support for principals in their talent management, so must HR provide strong backing for assistant superintendents, instructional directors or whomever is responsible for supervising principals. Human resources must focus on finding and keeping great principals, whose leadership is the primary factor in keeping great teachers.

Our academy developed a curriculum and rubric for the “right work” that the human resources operation must do to find and retain effective principals and assistant principals — everything from recruitment (inside and outside) for great candidates through creating robust performance management systems.

While HR is not responsible for selecting principals, the office should have in place efficient programs for internal and external recruitment of building-level administrators and for their professional development. HR has a major role in providing data to those who supervise principals about the adult data in the schools they oversee — the number of new teachers, the number of teachers in excess and forced placements, years of experience, retention and turnover data, along with teacher attendance.

The human resources office should partner in helping principals improve their talent management, especially when supervisors are concerned about student achievement progress in their schools. HR must be front and center on performance evaluations of administrators, ensuring they are designed with multiple measures and handled effectively. The experiences of newly hired principals with human resources staff can make all the difference in how they view the central office and the support they can expect from a highly functional division.

All central-office staff should be focused on supporting principals and schools, but HR can and should be a leader in how best practices in human capital management can make a tremendous contribution to the overall mission. Principals are the key to creating an environment in which student achievement can flourish. A strategic human resources office can make all the difference. n

Elizabeth Arons is chief executive officer of Urban Schools Human Capital Academy in Reston, Va. E-mail: earons@ushcacademy.org


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