Voices in Education

Eliminating Teacher Tenure Versus Improving Teacher Hiring: Why Improving Teacher Hiring Is a Better Bet
The U.S. Department of Education predicts schools will hire more than 300,000 new teachers next year. While many will turn out to be fantastic educators, some of these teachers will inevitably struggle in their new jobs, and sadly, some may be just plain horrible in the classroom. The recent Vergara v. California case has brought the issue of “grossly ineffective” teachers into the national spotlight. While there certainly are valid points on both sides of this case, the court case does illustrate a fundamental point in my recently released book Hire Better Teachers Now: Using the Science of Selection to Find the Best Teachers for Your School. Namely, the notion that better teachers get better outcomes for students and so improving teacher quality is one critical way to improve schools.

Research cited in the court case (as well as my book) has shown that an ineffective teacher will get a gain of merely .5 academic years in student achievement, while a good teacher will get a gain of 1.5 grade level equivalents for a single academic year. The challenge is how we get more good teachers, and fewer ineffective ones. One solution is to remove the poor performing teachers. The Vergara case is a response to the difficulty implementing this solution due to existing laws that give teachers employment for life regardless of their performance (aka “tenure”). The plaintiffs pointed out that firing a bad teacher (even a grossly incompetent one) could take anywhere from two to ten years and cost $50,000 to $450,000. While the plaintiffs in the recent case contend that eliminating teacher tenure will improve teacher quality by removing these costly time consuming barriers, another alternative is available.

My suggestion is a simple one: Let’s hire better teachers to start with. Hiring better teachers eliminates poor performers before they set foot in a classroom (and before they get tenure). This is by far the most cost effective long-term solution to improve overall teaching quality on a national scale. Unfortunately, too few school districts use rigorous, validated hiring processes. Many school districts rely on unstructured interviews, informal scoring, and non-standardized selection tools. These methods depend on principals to make a significant and potentially costly decision with information that has been shown to do a poor job of predicting good teaching. Evidence shows even the best intentioned principals often use criteria that don’t predict teaching effectiveness; they instead use techniques that are not the best available, or worse, they hire by “gut feeling.” The problem is not that principals don’t want to hire good teachers, but rather that principals haven’t been given the tools they need to make better choices.

To get the best results, districts should build a structured hiring process based on a full-scale job analysis followed by a rigorous validation study. For cash-strapped districts such a comprehensive approach may be unrealistic, but these districts often aren’t aware of small, affordable improvements that make a huge difference. For example, there are a variety of ways to score application forms to get better data.  Interviews can be drastically improved by standardizing them and adding structure. Teaching observations can be scored so all candidates are compared on the same metrics regardless of who does the observation. Each of these small steps will increase the number of good teachers that get hired and decrease the number of hiring mistakes. 

The 2014 Vergara v. California court case was premised on the notion that better teachers result in better student outcomes. While we all wait to see the result of the inevitable appeals through the courts, districts can achieve significant gains by investing in better teacher hiring. Every district can do something to improve their hiring process. It is important to recognize that hiring is a large scale numbers game. Districts should be trying to stack the odds in favor of student learning. The place to start is hiring better teachers . . . now.

About the Author: Dale S. Rose is co-author of Hire Better Teachers Now by Harvard Education Press and the president of 3D Group, a California-based consulting firm specializing in human resources assessment and development.