Improving Hiring and Staffing in a Nation Where Teaching is At Risk: If Student Success Depends on Teachers, Why is the Selection Process so Simplistic? (Part I)

Improving Hiring and Staffing in a Nation Where Teaching is At Risk (Part I)

If Student Success Depends on Teachers, Why is the Selection Process so Simplistic?

Dear Colleagues,


   Forty years ago (1983), the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created and assembled—in essence—by President Ronald Reagan, issued its 36-page report, A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Documenting—with data and analyses that some educators then and now contest—that American schools were failing, the Report initiated the contemporary “school reform and improvement” movement that continues to this day.

   The Report made 38 recommendations in five major areas: Content, Standards and Expectations, Time, Teaching, and Leadership and Fiscal Support. An historical account of the recommendations on the U.S. Department of Education’s website noted the following:

  • Content: "4 years of English; (b) 3 years of mathematics; (c) 3 years of science; (d) 3 years of social studies; and (e) one-half year of computer science" for high school students." The commission also recommends that students work toward proficiency in a foreign language starting in the elementary grades.
  • Standards and Expectations: The commission cautioned against grade inflation and recommends that four-year colleges raise admissions standards and standardized tests of achievement at "major transition points from one level of schooling to another and particularly from high school to college or work."
  • Time: The commission recommended that "school districts and State legislatures should strongly consider 7-hour school days, as well as a 200- to 220-day school year."
  • Teaching: The commission recommended that salaries for teachers be "professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based," and that teachers demonstrate "competence in an academic discipline."
  • Leadership and Fiscal Support: The commission noted that the Federal government plays an essential role in helping "meet the needs of key groups of students such as the gifted and talented, the socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority and language minority students, and the handicapped." The commission also noted that the Federal government must help ensure compliance with "constitutional and civil rights," "provide students with financial assistance and research graduate training."

   Focusing this Blog discussion in the Teaching area of this Report, the Commissioners noted that (a) teacher preparation programs needed to improve in quality and rigor; (b) shortages in science and math needed to be immediately addressed; and (c) teacher pay needed to be increased and tied directly to student achievement.

   Due to the Report, many significant policy and practice, instruction and accountability changes occurred. These included:

  • Extended school hours and, for some, extended school years;
  • Increases in high school graduation coursework requirements and end-of-course assessments;
  • More rigorous teacher certification or licensure requirements and required observations and evaluations of teacher efficacy;
  • Data-based evaluations of annual school and district staff and student outcomes; and
  • More demanding state curricular standards complemented by high-stakes student proficiency testing.

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   Forty years later, especially in the Teaching area, the long-term reviews and results are mixed at best.

  • While teacher training programs are more instructionally rigorous, the research—for example, in how to teach reading and literacy—is not well-integrated into programs’ coursework, and explicit training in classroom management and enhancing students’ social-emotional skills is notably absent;
  • The depth and breadth of supervision and evaluation of prospective teachers’ actual (practicum or internship) classroom instruction continues to vary from program to program, and most graduates still do not begin their first teaching assignments at a high level of effectiveness; and
  • Low teacher pay remains a significant issue, and the importance of supporting teachers on social, emotional, collegial, and professional levels is just starting to be taken seriously.

  In essence, the system is still “at risk” and, in many areas, it is broken.

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   Over the next four Blogs, we are going to systematically dissect what districts and schools need to do to begin fixing the teacher-instructional part of our still-at-risk educational system.

   The ultimate goal is to ensure that all teachers are teaching in pedagogically-sound and effective ways such that the academic and social-emotional learning, mastery, and progress of all students occurs from preschool through high school.

The Four Pillars of Teacher Preparation and Proficiency

   While an ongoing topic in education, a few months ago, there was an Education Week article that discussed whether students should be involved in teacher tenure and evaluation decisions. This opens up the entire discussion regarding teacher recruitment, selection, professional development/training, evaluation, tenure, and continuing appointment, and how all of this relates to effective instruction and demonstrable student outcomes.

   In some states, teachers are simply employed “at will,” and they are tendered new one-year appointments or contracts annually by notifying them on a specific date (e.g., April 30). Once re-appointed for a specific year, some states do not allow teachers to resign to take another position. . . under threat of refusal, decertification, or a lawsuit.

   Putting these state variations aside, it is important to think again about the critical reasons and desired outcomes relative to teacher recruitment and selection through evaluation and tenure.

   Expanding our initial statement above, the primary outcome is:

   To ensure that teachers consistently teach (a) academic and (b) individual and group social, emotional, and behavioral information, content, and skills to students in effective, differentiated ways such that, in a developmentally-sensitive way, they learn, master, and are able to independently apply these (a) to real-world problems or situations, and eventually (b) to successful employment and community functioning.

   Simplistically, this suggests that we would then need to evaluate (a) how well teachers teach in the classroom; and (b) whether students learn.

   But this has not worked.

   Over the past decade, administrators have conducted teacher walk-throughs and/or teacher observations (for example, using some variation of Danielson’s rubric), pairing these with clinical supervision discussions, and the result has consistently been that 97% or more of the teachers across this nation are “proficient” or above.

   And yet, we all know that teachers’ instructional effectiveness naturally varies over time, content, students, curricula, and resources; and that some teachers—while momentarily “proficient” on Danielson during their observations, should not be in teaching in the classroom.

   In addition, over the past decade or more, we have learned that tying teachers’ evaluations to student outcomes (typically, their proficiency on a state standards or high-stakes benchmark test) simply (a) does not dramatically improve either teachers’ instruction or students’ scores; and (b) it is not fair—because teachers have no control over some students’ readiness to learn or the previous instruction they have received.

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   And yet, the solution here is not to eliminate teacher evaluation or student assessment.

   The solution is to recognize that effective instruction is based more on training, coaching, consultation, and the evaluation of teacher growth and efficacy, than on financially motivating, controlling, or “catching” teachers “being good.”

   Indeed, effective teachers almost always are individually or collegially motivated to positively impact their students. But effective teachers are also skilled in their craft, and these skills develop over time, supported by district-provided and individually-selected training and coaching (whether formal or informal).

   Critically, if a teacher is not suitably skilled. . . just like one of their students, they may need modified or more intensive instruction, practice, and coaching.

   But if a teacher is not motivated. . . this should eventually become an administrative—not a training or professional development—issue.

   And at the far end of the spectrum of poor motivation or insubordinate behavior, a teacher should be put on a Professional Development Plan by their administrator, and—if unsuccessful—should be reassigned with continued oversight or, as necessary, terminated.

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   Ultimately, there is no perfect teacher preparation through proficiency process. If there were, districts and schools would all be using it, and the teaching issues identified in A Nation At Risk would have been solved a long time ago.

   At the same time, we would like to suggest that there are four “pillars” important to the process. These involve districts’ and schools’ attention to:  

  • Teacher Hiring and Orientation
  • Teacher Induction and Tenure
  • Continuing Teacher Appointments and Coaching, and
  • Teacher Leadership and Advancement

   This first Blog (of four) will address the first of these areas.

The Teacher Hiring Process

   While it is easy to look at our university-based teacher training programs, celebrating the good ones and cursing the poor ones, unless a formal and direct university-to-district pipeline has been established, districts and schools have little control over teachers’ pre-service preparation for the classroom.

   This is compounded by the “alternative certification” process now in virtually every state where there typically is no teacher training program or pre-certification experience to point to.

   So what should districts and schools do to ensure quality hires?

   Before even posting an open position, Districts need to:

  • Know what they functionally need the new teacher to know and do in the classroom (described in observable, measurable, and behavioral terms);
  • Determine what their candidates know and can do based on these needs;
  • Hire only the candidates that come closest to meeting these needs (meaning that you hire on “prerequisite rather than prayers”);
  • Functionally orient their new hires as quickly as possible; and
  • Simultaneously close candidates’ knowledge or skills gaps as quickly as possible.

   In the first area above, districts and schools need to explicitly identify (a) the academic, instructional, and pedagogical content and skills they need when recruiting teachers for specific positions; (b) the interpersonal and team-related skills they need; and (c) the self-motivation and self-accountability beliefs and aspirations they need as related to students, colleagues, and the educational process.

   And then they need to interview based on these needs.

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An Analogous Aside

   When I was the Director of the Ed.S. specialist and Ph.D. doctoral School Psychology Program at the University of South Florida—after the application and initial screening process that generated an invitation—we interviewed prospective students using a “carousel” approach.

   Involving both professors and current students, each candidate (a) participated in an presentation of the Program, focusing on its professional and student-centered orientation, beliefs, goals, and objectives; (b) was interviewed by at least two separate panels of professors and students; (c) completed a writing sample that asked them to solve an important psychoeducational dilemma; and (d) got to informally “hang out” with other students so that they could ask questions.

   Critically, our students were accepted into the Program based more on their interview than on their credentials. As no one was interviewed unless they met our required credentials, we were interviewing students to determine who “best fit” our Program’s culture and who had the best chance of growth and success— both in our Program and in their post-graduation professional careers.

   As such, the interview panels helped to formally determine students’ communication skills, their ability to “think on their feet,” and as one part of assessing a student’s “best fit” in our Program.

   The writing sample evaluated one of the biggest predictors of students’ academic success. Indeed, our students’ writing skills were essential to their success on papers, exams, theses, and dissertations. And their writing skills were essential after graduation relative to communicating with teachers and administrators, and in their psychological reports.

   Finally, the informal “hanging out” was really a planned opportunity for our current students to gauge how well a candidate would fit in—socially, emotionally, multiculturally, and attitudinally—in our high-powered, high-stress full-time program.

   After every interview (our carousels usually were full-day multi-candidate affairs), both students and faculty crowded into a large conference room to discuss every candidate. At the very least, everyone had an equal voice in each decision. At the very most, our current students’ recommendations had “more voice.”

   Significantly, we never had problems getting enough current students to participate in our interview days (our Program at the time consisted of over 50 full-time students). Indeed, our students saw their participation as their responsibility, as a way to “pay forward” the Program’s contributions to their professional lives, and as an “insurance policy” to ensure that the multi-dimensional quality of the Program would be maintained.

   NOTE ALSO that these interview days took a considerable amount of time—beyond their planning. Every year, we interviewed over 50 candidates for 20 student openings in our Program. This usually required at least three interview days. This is important to remember as we generalize this analogy below.

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Applying the Analogy

   Applying my little story above to how districts and schools currently interview new candidates. . . it is important to note that most new teacher candidates (whether already experienced in the field or just out of their teacher training programs) are interviewed:

  • Typically, just by a school principal (or small administrative team) during the summer;
  • Sometimes, by an Interview Team that includes teachers and other support staff, but does not include most or all of the elements above and below; and
  • At times (often in the case of large districts that practice “top-down” leadership), by a district “Human Resources” Director.

   Clearly, my anecdotal analogy above suggests that there may be significant flaws in all three of these common approaches.

   And while I understand the time involved when using a more extensive interview process, I also know that (a) it takes even more time to supervise and (if needed) terminate (or tolerate) a teacher (or any educational staff person) who was the wrong candidate from the beginning; and that (b) even after terminated, some teachers’ negative or destructive legacies “live on” long after they have left. . . for both staff and especially students.

   I also know that—even in the midst of a teacher shortage—the districts and schools that have exceptional reputations for teacher quality, support, collaboration, and satisfaction are the ones that attract (and retain) the best candidates. . . when these candidates have multiple job offers to choose from.

   Hence, as they consciously connect what they need a teacher to do (see above) with their interview preparations, schools should consider an interview carousel that:

  • Involves representative staff who serve the school in different capacities;
  • Includes different interview formats, activities, and discussions to match every candidate to the desired climate and culture, functional job and position demands, and staff and school expectations; and
  • Gives all interview participants a full and active voice in the final selection of the favored candidate(s).

   Relative to the interview activities noted above, this could (should) include, for example, live simulations where candidates teach a prescribed skill or lesson in a classroom setting (prepared by the candidates in advance), and/or “case study” simulations where candidates discuss or demonstrate how they would approach or resolve different instructional or behavioral classroom challenges.

   In summary, the teacher hiring process is one of the most important components of a successful school. While the “perfect” candidates may be unavailable, when schools consciously match what they need to their candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, they can move into the Orientation, Induction, and Teacher Tenure phases knowing what training, coaching, and evaluation is needed to close any important gaps.

   At the same time, in the absence of an “acceptable” candidate, some schools may have the option of (a) hiring candidates on a one-year temporary or probationary basis; (b) asking an existing staff member—like a “Utility Player” in baseball—to consider a one-year reassignment so that a candidate can be placed into a grade or course area where they will have the greatest potential of success; or (c) adjusting some instructional configurations and leaving the position vacant for one year—rather than hiring a person who clearly is not well-matched to the position or school.

The Teacher Orientation Process

   By “Teacher Orientation,” we mean the activities—right before the school year begins—that introduce newly-hired teachers to their district, school, department or grade-level, and individual classroom(s) and students.

   Clearly, there is an over-abundance of information that all new teachers need to know before they walk into their classrooms on the very first day of school. Thus, districts and schools need to prioritize and choose the most essential information, how best to communicate it to new hires, how long the “orientation” period should last, and who is responsible for working with their new colleagues.

   Critically, some of this information can be provided in written form, some through on-demand webinars or podcasts, some in virtual or live large-group forums, and some in more intimate small-group sessions.

   Moreover, some of this information can be provided in the weeks before everyone shows up for the beginning-of-the-school year orientation required of all staff, some of this information can be shared one or two extra days before the all-staff orientation, and—with strategic planning and scheduling—some information is best discussed during an “orientation” that extends into the first quarter of the new school year.

   The essential point is:

   Teachers need to be thoroughly, systematically, and functionally well-oriented to their new district and school as soon and as effectively as possible for them (a) to feel settled, safe, secure, comfortable, welcome, and integrated into their new setting(s); and (b) to successfully meet and exceed their instructional, collegial, and other professional responsibilities.

   And yet, too many districts and schools do not fully meet this goal. . . often, for example, because administrators and others are focused on other “higher priority” tasks; delegate the orientation to others without structure or support; do not want to (or cannot—per the Union) pay the new hires for extra, non-contractual days or responsibilities; or cannot (or will not) “fit” this around everyone’s vacation schedules.

   I get all this.

   And yet, if you ask new hires who have experienced a well-organized orientation program—versus those experiencing a “catch as catch can” or no orientation program—for feedback or which they preferred, you know what they will say.

   And I speak from experience.

_ _ _ _ _

   Once again, by way of analogy, as Director of the School Psychology Program at the University of South Florida, I instituted a required full week orientation program for our new graduate students every year for over fifteen years.

   Involving our entire core faculty and many current students (who volunteered their time), the orientation included important campus, college, and Program-specific pre-academic activities; and opportunities to visit and meet with important university sites and resource people, respectfully. The orientation also incorporated teaming activities, as well as formal and informal student-faculty and student-student social events that began the process of building strong student relationships, collaboration, and interdependence.

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   From a content perspective, a district and/or school orientation might provide information to new staff members in the following areas:

  • Administrative, Contractual, Job-Related/Employment, and Human Resources policies and procedures
  • Supervision, Evaluation, Professional Development, Mentoring, and Certification/Licensure policies and procedures
  • Building Administrator and School-specific policies, procedures, and practices
  • District and School Technology policies, procedures, resources, and support personnel
  • General, Special Education, English Second Language policies, procedures, resources, and health, mental health, and related services personnel
  • School Support Staff resources, roles, and responsibilities (for example, relative to secretaries, paraprofessionals, cafeteria and custodial staff, bus drivers, etc.)
  • Safety and Crisis-Oriented building and classroom procedures
  • Curriculum and Instruction policies, procedures, practices, interventions, and resources
  • Common Classroom and Building (Common Area) expectations, responsibilities, routines, and procedures
  • District/School Discipline Code contents, decisions, procedures, and resources
  • Social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health procedures, curricula, practices, interventions, and resources
  • Family and community outreach roles, responsibilities, procedures, laws, and resources
  • Data, documentation, and evaluation roles, responsibilities, procedures, accountability, and resources

_ _ _ _ _

   Critically, part of this orientation also includes an introduction—to all new hires—to specific initiatives or trainings that a district and/or school has embraced and started.

   For example, if the school has adopted specific approaches to literacy or math instruction, to teaching social skills or other social-emotional strategies, or to providing remediation or interventions through computer-assisted supports. . . the new teachers should be (a) alerted—early on—to these approaches, (b) given the resources and an initial overview to help them support these initiatives in their classrooms, and (c) provided a schedule of how and when they will be formally trained to the same level of proficiency as their colleagues.

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   In summary, the Teacher Orientation process is essential to the early success and comfort of every newly-hired teacher. The process not only helps teachers begin their new school experience in a positive and effective way, but it also helps the school to proactively integrate them into the culture and climate, roles and responsibilities, and functions and modus operandi of the staff and school.

   In the long run, this maintains the consistency of the procedures and practices that make the school successful.

   In the short run, it communicates to all new staff that:

   “We care about you as a person and a professional. Your success is our success.”


   We began this Blog by commemorating the 40th “anniversary” of the National Commission on Excellence in Education’s 1983 report, A Nation At Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Overviewing the recommendations detailed in the Report’s five major areas, we focused on those related to Teaching.

   Critically, despite the significant policy and practice changes prompted by the Report, we discuss how little things have actually changed. For example, while teacher training programs are more instructionally rigorous, they still struggle to effectively integrate research in academic and social-emotional curriculum and instruction. Moreover, low teacher pay remains a significant issue, as is teacher recruitment, retention, and efficacy.

   The Blog then identified the four “Pillars” needed to address these important issues: Teacher Hiring and Orientation; Teacher Induction and Tenure; Continuing Teacher Appointments and Coaching, and Teacher Leadership and Advancement.

   Ultimately, these Pillars’ primary goal is to:

   Ensure that teachers consistently teach (a) academic and (b) individual and group social, emotional, and behavioral information, content, and skills to students in effective, differentiated ways such that, in a developmentally-sensitive way, they learn, master, and are able to independently apply these (a) to real-world problems or situations, and eventually (b) to successful employment and community functioning.

   We then focused on the first Pillar, Teacher Hiring and Orientation, describing—sometimes using a personal analogy—what districts and schools need to consider and do to be successful. The process begins as districts and schools identify ahead of time what they need a new teacher to be able to do—in general and specific to a new position.

   The process continues through the hiring process that matches candidates to these needs. And it continues as newly hiring teachers are effectively oriented to their new positions and schools in a wide range of specified policy, procedure, and practice areas.

   Here, we emphasized that:

   Teachers need to be thoroughly, systematically, and functionally well-oriented to their new district and school as soon and as effectively as possible for them (a) to feel settled, safe, secure, comfortable, welcome, and integrated into their new setting(s); and (b) to successfully meet and exceed their instructional, collegial, and other professional responsibilities.

   We continue this discussion—relative to the remaining three Pillars—in the next series of Blogs.  Stay tuned!

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   As always, I appreciate everyone who reads this bi-monthly Blog and thinks about the issues or recommendations that we share.

   As we continue to focus on our students’ progress and needed accomplishments, know that there are many Project ACHIEVE resources to help you (see our Website Store:, and that I am always available for a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you to move “to the next level of excellence” from a student, staff, school, or organizational perspective.

   Please feel free to reach out if you would like to begin this process with me.