Making Teacher Hiring Less Comfortable

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008; 10:51 AM

For those who still think helping children learn is everybody's top priority in our schools, let me cite a disturbing dispute over where to send several hundred teachers at 23 D.C. schools that are about to be closed for inadequate enrollment.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee wants the principals of her remaining schools to decide which of those excess teachers they will hire, within the limits of a contract that guarantees them jobs somewhere in the system. Urban schools don't work if all adults in each building don't agree on what must be done to make them work. There is no chance of that shared vision if each principal is not allowed to pick the players on his or her team.

Unfortunately, many kind and well-intentioned teachers and parents in the District and other cities have a different view. Their first priority is not so much that children learn, but that they feel secure and comfortable. They want those excess teachers to accompany the students they know at their current school to whichever school the children are transferred to. That way, they say, the kids will have an easier and more comfortable transition.

Some members of the Washington Teachers' Union, which is in the midst of a leadership fight, also say they fear Rhee is resisting this more genial approach because she wants to get rid of any teachers who can't find principals who want them.

Transferring schools can be stressful for children, but such moves are very common in American communities and rarely incite calls for reform except as one more way to short-circuit efforts to mold schools in their principals' images. In many ways, school systems are designed to give principals as little control over hiring as possible, and no one understands this issue better than Rhee. Her most important achievement before becoming chancellor last year was founding the nonprofit New Teacher Project, which helped urban school systems recruit and train new teachers. Her organization also exposed the many ways school districts cater to senior teachers, whether they are effective or not, at the expense of recruiting promising new ones. A 2003 study by New Teacher Project researchers Jessica Levin and Meredith Quinn revealed procedures that allowed veteran teachers, for instance, to wait until late in the summer to announce their retirements or resignations, long after many good potential replacements had given up and accepted other jobs.

Many districts allow senior teachers priority whenever jobs open up in a school, even if the principal knows of a high-performing but less-experienced applicant who could fill that slot. Rhee's researchers at the New Teacher Project persuaded some principals to admit, off the record, that they sometimes tried to hide potential vacancies from headquarters so they would not have to accept one of the mediocre instructors being passed from school to school -- what they called passing the lemons. New York school administrator Sy Fliegel helped legendary principal Deborah Meier create one of the most successful inner-city schools ever, the Central Park East Secondary School, by surreptitiously violating the staffing rule that required him to post any job openings so the most senior eligible teachers could apply for them.

Many school critics blame such rules on teacher unions, but some experts who have examined these barriers to good hiring have concluded that school boards and administrators also embrace them. After all, such rules make the hiring process easier for everybody. Nobody has to investigate which teachers might be best for the available jobs. Nobody has to visit their classrooms and see them teach. Giving the job to the applicant with the earliest hiring date is so much more comfortable, like letting excess D.C. teachers follow their students to their new schools.

Such practices don't do as much harm in affluent suburbs that draw, on average, a higher-performing group of teacher applicants because of the higher pay and better working conditions. Teachers who are mediocre or worse are still found in wealthy suburb schools, but the usually college-educated parents are better equipped to detect disappointing instructors, apply pressure to get rid of them and in the meantime find ways to make up for whatever their children are missing in those classes.

Low-income parents in our cities don't have those safety nets. In many cases, research indicates, they have given up hoping for any determined effort to improve significantly their children's grasp of reading, writing and mathematics. They settle for making sure their kids are safe and comfortable, thus unknowingly adding to the cycle of failure.

I have spent the past 25 years looking for inner-city schools that have, despite the odds, succeeded in raising significantly the achievement of low-income children. There are not many of them, but they share certain characteristics. The most important one, in my view, is that they have principals who have been selected for their demonstrated talents as teachers and managers. Those principals have managed to recruit -- through good luck or unusual new rules -- teams of talented teachers eager to give students the energetic and imaginative instruction they deserve and to coordinate their lessons and their ways of motivating and disciplining children.

Teachers are not wrong to fear that some of them may lose their jobs if this principal-oriented system takes hold. The New Teacher Project just released a study saying that 235 teachers in New York, which has instituted such a system, had in December 2007 still not found principals willing to hire them after they lost their jobs in 2006 because of school closings, enrollment changes or budget cuts. They are still being paid even though nearly half of them, the study says, have not applied for even one vacancy on the city's online job posting site.

I would have to see more data on those teachers before I had a good idea of what to do about them. I suspect it will be very difficult to take them off the payroll, given the pro-union sentiment in that city and what I suspect are some heartbreaking personal stories. But some experts are suggesting there be a limit to how long they should be paid. I would think the cases of those not even applying for jobs ought to be examined.

This is, of course, another one of those issues about adults that gets in the way of addressing issues about children and getting them the best teachers available. It might be a good time to shed that old desire to make the grown-ups comfortable, and introduce our kids to the useful discomforts of challenging lessons and demanding teachers, and principals who have the power to put that formula in action.

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