What happened? This is what we at the Red Hook Central School District had to ask when we looked at our student achievement data.
In some cases, there was a mismatch between our beliefs about certain teachers and actual performance, as measured by student achievement data. Ultimately, our personal biases were exposed and this led us to rethink our hiring practices.
We had previously been confident in our hiring process. None of us would say that it was flawless, but we all believed it was rigorous and yielded good results. We always began by thinking about what we needed.
It was common to hear a principal say, “I’m looking for someone with a strong literacy background” or some other desired attribute. Then came the long hours of reviewing resumes, interviewing candidates ad nauseam, reference checks, demonstration lessons, writing samples, and final interviews with the superintendent.
This was a process that would take days and, we thought, would consistently yield the very best for students. But why, in some cases, did the data say otherwise? We went in search of answers.
Help from outside
The unlikely heroine of our story was Suzanne Button, a clinical psychologist and parent in our district. We asked her to review research specific to hiring teachers, and determine how well our processes aligned with that research. The results were surprising and humbling.
We had placed too much confidence in our own abilities to pick a winner and we allowed personal biases to play too big a role in the process. We learned that credentials and personality have very little predictive quality in terms of student achievement. We learned that our existing ranking systems represented a pseudo-scientific way to feel good about our biases.
We learned to be wary of personal opinions. Most importantly, we learned that our process was too heavily weighted toward interactions with adults.
Enhancing the process
There were several redeeming aspects of our process. It was, indeed, a good idea to begin by thinking about what we wanted in a new hire. For the process to have organizational coherence, we needed a set of well-defined, district-level attributes with predictive quality regarding student achievement. According to Button, these attributes should include:
- The ability to establish rapport with diverse groups of children
- Fluency in content knowledge
- The ability to translate that knowledge for children
- Skill in pedagogy
- Mental agility
- The ability to self-correct
Once these values are in place, an organization can analyze the extent to which its hiring processes are actually assessing these qualities.
Our existing processes had offered us but one glimpse into a candidate’s abilities to build rapport with children and self-correct. This glimpse came during and after a demonstration lesson. Additionally, our process did not specify how observers could measure these attributes reliably.
To address these flaws, we have begun to think about providing final candidates additional opportunities to interact with children and giving ourselves additional training on reliable ranking systems. One approach we are trying is a less-structured, current-event-based discussion between the candidate and students.
This kind of spontaneous performance activity will allow for a more accurate assessment of rapport and the disposition to self-correct.
While our emerging processes might appear more cumbersome, there are offsetting efficiencies to be found. We plan, for example, to abandon the final interview with the superintendent. The superintendent’s time may be better spent in process sampling (i.e., strategically observing all aspects of the hiring process) to ensure organizational coherence with the predictive qualities laid out by Button. This will be a significant and valuable shift toward quality control, and away from personal bias.
While we were doing some things right, we found many more opportunities to better align our processes to the predictive qualities that matter. We hope other districts can benefit from our experience, and improve their own processes.
Paul Finch is the superintendent of the Red Hook Central School District in Red Hook, N.Y.