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Volume 20, Number 1
January/February 2004

Landing the “Highly Qualified Teacher”

How administrators can hire—and keep—the best


Applicants for teaching positions at Blue Creek Elementary School in the North Colonie (N.Y.) School District go through a grueling process. First, a team assembled from all six elementary schools in the district screens their applications, looking at their college grade-point averages, the rigor of the courses they took, their extracurricular activities, and their experience working with diverse students, among other factors. Promising applicants are then invited for interviews.

The interview process is "overwhelming" for the candidates, according to Rose Jackson, Blue Creek's principal. In all, six principals, an assistant superintendent, two or three parents, and two or three students quiz prospective teachers on instructional issues, such as classroom management strategies and ideas for using technology. And that's not all. "If we have the opportunity—we don't do it as much as we'd like—we observe the teacher or invite them to do a model lesson," says Jackson. "That's been successful for us, although it is stressful for the candidates."

The process at Blue Creek is unusually thorough. Because the district, which is located outside of Albany, attracts 200 to 300 applicants for every elementary teaching position, principals like Jackson can select from a variety of competitive candidates. In addition, the screening process eliminates the central office bottlenecks that often plague large districts, particularly urban districts, which in many cases hire teachers close to—or after—the start of the school year and have a limited pool from which to draw. Few schools conduct the intense interviews and teacher observations that Blue Creek does.

Yet even Jackson worries that the North Colonie process may not be perfect in matching applicants to positions. The initial screening of paper credentials might weed out an excellent prospective teacher, she notes. "The best candidate for us might be one we turned down," Jackson says.

The Research: Teaching Counts

Although the process of hiring workers is a challenge in any industry, the stakes of getting it right in education are particularly high. A growing body of research suggests strongly that the quality of teaching is the largest school-related factor associated with student achievement. Studies conducted in Tennessee, Dallas, and elsewhere have shown that good teachers can improve student achievement by as much as an extra grade level over the course of a year.

Moreover, the effects of teacher quality are cumulative. Researchers from the Dallas Independent School District found that students assigned for three years in a row to effective teachers—those whose students gained in achievement more than would be expected by past performance—went from the 59th percentile in the 4th grade to the 76th percentile in the 6th. But a similar group of students assigned to less effective teachers actually lost ground over that period: they went from the 60th percentile to the 42nd.

The Tennessee study, which examined the "value added" that teachers provide, showed that even low-achieving students of the most effective teachers gained about three times as much in achievement as those taught by the least effective teachers.

Reflecting such findings, the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires schools to employ "highly qualified teachers" in every classroom. Under the law, all teachers in schools eligible for Title I aid for disadvantaged students must be highly qualified this year, and all teachers in all public schools must be highly qualified by 2005-06.

Although the law allows states to come up with their own definitions of "highly qualified," the U.S. Department of Education requires that, at a minimum, such teachers have a four-year college degree, a full state teaching license, and demonstrated knowledge of the subject they are teaching, either by having a college major in the subject or by passing an examination.

Who Is the Effective Teacher?

There is little research on the characteristics of effective teachers—perhaps surprising, given the growing recognition of the importance of teaching. One recent synthesis, conducted by Jennifer King Rice, an associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Maryland, found that teachers' years of experience, the selectivity of the college or university they attended, whether they held a certificate in the subject they taught, their coursework in subject matter and pedagogy, and their verbal abilities (as measured by tests like the SAT) were all associated with higher levels of student achievement. By contrast, there was little evidence of the impact on student achievement of emergency certification or scores on teacher licensing tests.

However, the study also found large gaps in the research. There is little research, for example, on teacher quality in elementary and middle schools, in subjects other than mathematics, and for teachers of special populations, such as English-language learners or students with disabilities.

Nevertheless, the research does suggest some factors principals can look for in hiring teachers, Rice says. Subject-area knowledge is important, and an undergraduate major in the subject taught is a useful clue, particularly for high school mathematics teachers. But "advanced degrees don't seem to matter much, unless you pay close attention to the alignment of what teachers teach and what is learned in the higher degree programs," she says. On the other hand, knowledge of pedagogy is crucial. "I would be reluctant to hire anyone with no experience or no coursework in teaching methods," Rice says.

In an effort to codify these types of factors, a new organization, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), is developing a test that will be administered nationwide and will offer certificates to any prospective teacher who passes it, regardless of whether or not the candidate attended a teacher-education institution. The board's certificate has been adopted in Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded the organization a $35 million grant to expand its development efforts. (The ABCTE is also developing a certification for experienced teachers that would compete with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.)
Kathleen Madigan, president of the ABCTE, says the test reflects the concerns of principals and others who hire new teachers. "We had administrators, principals, superintendents, and personnel directors help us determine what beginning teachers need to know," she says. "We were attentive to what they see as everyday needs."

The test includes items on subject-area knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. Madigan says that any teacher who passes the test would be ready to teach. "You learn to teach on the job," she says. "If you have solid subject-area knowledge and professional teaching knowledge under your belt, you're ready to start learning your craft."

Finding the Right Fit

Still, some educators caution that such knowledge, while necessary for beginning teachers, is not sufficient and that principals need to look at additional factors before deciding whether to hire a new teacher. "A principal needs to take into consideration the culture of the school and the population of students," says Michael Allen, a program director at the Education Commission of the States. "A teacher who would work well in suburban schools may not do well in inner-city schools or schools with high minority populations. A principal would have to take into consideration whether this teacher is someone who has the skills and personality to handle the kids in their school."

Others point out that principals also want to know whether teachers can work in teams with other teachers, and whether they share the belief that all students can learn. And, since new teachers are fresh out of school, principals need to know if they can be authority figures in the classroom. "They are looking at candidates who have the ability to be adults," says Nancy Moir, director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Principals can find the answer to such questions when hiring veteran teachers by looking at recommendations from previous employers. But what about new teachers? For them, the interview process is critical.

Martin Haberman, a distinguished professor in the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has developed a set of questions that can help principals predict success among urban teachers. The method has been used to hire 30,000 teachers in 160 cities each year, Haberman says. Follow-up studies suggest that the teachers hired through the method perform at least as well as other teachers and remain in the profession longer.

Haberman's approach is aimed at eliciting teachers' points of view on a range of qualities—such as persistence, their approach to "at-risk" students, and the distinction between their professional and personal orientation to children—that together help principals determine whether prospective teachers can relate well to children. "How much teachers know is valuable," Haberman says, "but it only matters if you can relate to kids. If just knowing stuff was all that matters, college professors could teach middle school kids" (see sidebar "Dimensions of Effective Teaching").

Rethinking the Hiring Process

While approaches like Haberman's might enable principals to make more informed judgments about prospective teachers, many school leaders may not be able to conduct such thorough inquiries into candidates' backgrounds and approaches to teaching. In a survey of teachers in four states, Edward Liu at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that, while 80 percent of new teachers interview with the principal, fewer than half interview with other teachers, and only 9 percent interview with parents.

Moreover, Liu's survey found that few schools offer teachers the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills: only 7.5 percent of the teachers in the four states teach a sample lesson as part of the hiring process. However, the survey also notes that in one state, Michigan, an unusually high number of new teachers—29 percent—had done student teaching at the school where they ended up working. Significantly, new teachers in Michigan reported a relatively high degree of fit between their backgrounds and the schools where they worked.

The study confirms that giving schools the authority to hire teachers is not enough to ensure that the hiring process works well, Liu says. "There's a fair amount of school-based activity, but that didn't necessarily reflect new ways of hiring or richer exchanges of information."

In many cases, principals may not be able to take advantage of the hiring power they have because they hire teachers too late to be selective. According to the survey, 62 percent of teachers in the four states are hired within 30 days of the start of their teaching responsibilities, and 33 percent are hired after the school year has already started.

Moir, of the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, says late hiring does not necessarily result in the selection of poor teachers. "I know in urban settings many principals hire at the last minute," she says. "Folks who hire underprepared teachers say there aren't good candidates. I'm not sure there aren't good candidates."

But Jessica Levin, chief knowledge officer of the New Teacher Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, says late hiring does reduce the quality of the pool of teacher applicants. Many well-qualified applicants take jobs in other districts because they cannot wait for the urban schools to hire them, she says. "Many urban districts are receiving a large number of high-quality applicants," Levin says, "but because of the overall hiring process they wait too long to hire, and they lose the best applicants to other districts."

In a recent report, the New Teacher Project identified three systemic factors that contribute to late hiring. First, many districts allow teachers to notify schools that they are leaving as late as August, which makes it difficult for schools to anticipate vacancies. Second, union contracts in many districts grant veteran teachers the first right to vacant positions. Third, budget uncertainties make it difficult to know whether vacant positions can be filled.

The report recommends that districts require earlier vacancy notices, transfer requests, and budget allocations to allow schools to hire teachers earlier in the year. It also highlights several districts, such as Clark County, Nev., San Diego, and Rochester, N.Y., that have implemented at least some of these policies.

Other districts, such as Boston, have addressed some aspects of teacher hiring in collective bargaining agreements. Under a 2000 contract, the district and the teacher union agreed to prohibit tenured teachers from "bumping" first-year teachers from their jobs, curbing a practice that often resulted in late vacancy notices and hiring. However, this limited reform was less than the district had sought and was resisted by the union, which had wanted to retain rights for veteran teachers.

A Two-Way Street

Principals who want to make the right hire should also recognize that the information they give to prospective teachers—about their own expectations, about the school, and so forth—may be as important as what they learn about teachers, according to Edward Liu of Harvard. Hiring is often a one-way flow of information, from the prospective teacher to the principal who is doing the hiring, but teachers who really understand the school they are stepping into will be more likely to feel comfortable and stay.

In the end, keeping good teachers in their jobs may be more important than attracting them there in the first place. A study by Richard M. Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania found that staffing difficulties schools face stem from the high rate of teacher turnover—some 29 percent of teachers leave teaching in the first three years, he found—rather than from increased student enrollments or retirements. "All the recruitment in the world isn't going to help us retain teachers," says Moir of the New Teacher Center. "They are not going to stay if they don't have high-quality support."

Robert Rothman is a principal associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. He has been a reporter and editor for Education Week, a senior project associate for Achieve, Inc., a study director for the National Research Council, and the director of special projects for the National Center on Education and the Economy. He is the author of Measuring Up: Standards, Assessment and School Reform (Jossey-Bass, 1995).

For Further Information

For Further Information

M. Allen. Eight Questions on Teacher Preparation: What Does the Research Say? Denver: Education Commission of the States, 2003.

American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, 1225 19th St., NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036; tel: 202- 261-2620.

M. Haberman, “Selecting ‘Star’ Teachers for Children and Youth in Urban Poverty.” Phi Delta Kappan 76, no. 10 (June 1995), 777–781.

R.M. Ingersoll. Is There Really a Teacher Shortage? Seattle: University of Washington, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, September 2003.

J.F. Kain and C. Singleton. “Equality of Educational Opportunity Revisited.” New England Economic Review (May/June 1996), 109.

J. Levin and M. Quinn. Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Classrooms. New York: New Teacher Project, 2003.

E. Liu. “New Teachers’ Experience of Hiring: Preliminary Findings from a Four-State Study.” Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, April 2003. Also see website of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

J.K. Rice. Teacher Quality: Understanding the Effectiveness of Teacher Attributes. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2003. Also see the Executive Summary, available online.

W.L. Sanders and J.C. Rivers. Cumulative and Residual Effects of Teachers on Future Student Academic Achievement. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1996.