Commentary

How to Fix the Hiring Process for Teachers

To help solve teacher shortages, school districts need to improve the ways they identify and select the talented teachers of tomorrow.

In California, school districts and counties report they are facing an acute teacher shortage and estimate they will need to hire over 22,000 new teachers for the 2016-17 school year. In Orange County, for example, the number of teaching vacancies listed on EdJoin, the nation’s top education job board, increased by almost 50 percent between 2013 and 2015. The increases were even bigger in Los Angeles – a 90 percent increase in job listings – and San Diego, which has seen an 85 percent increase in listings between 2013 and 2015. 

This significant demand for teachers is largely due to California school districts’ aspiration to return student-teacher ratios to pre-recession levels – one teacher for every 20 students – with the recent large windfall in education funding. The education budget for California schools was $56.6 billion in 2007-08. Spending fell to $47.3 billion in 2011-12 but has since rebounded and state education funding has been at all time highs since 2012-13. California’s education spending is expected to grow to $71.6 billion in 2016-17, an increase of $24.3 billion in five years (51 percent). For K12 schools, funding levels will have increased by nearly $3,600 per student in 2016-17 over 2012 levels. New teachers will be the primary investment that school districts make with this inflow of new dollars. 

But the supply of new teachers in California is at a 12-year low. Enrollment in teacher preparation programs at colleges has fallen by 70 percent in the last 10 years. The low number of newly credentialed teachers has led to a large increase of people being given emergency and temporary teaching credentials so they are allowed to teach. According to a recent report by the Learning Policy Institute, in the 2014-15 school year, provisional and short-term teaching permits nearly tripled from the number issued two years earlier, growing from about 850 to more than 2,400. In all, the number of teachers hired on emergency credentials comprised a third of all new credentials issued in 2014-15. 

Most troubling, the proportion of un-credentialed teachers found in schools with large numbers of minority students was more than twice the number of un-credentialed teachers in low-minority schools.  Similar disparities existed between the qualifications of teachers in high- and low-poverty schools.

State legislators introduced a package of three bills aimed at producing more credentialed teachers that they hope will ease the burden of getting through teaching preparation programs and will provide rigorous training for new teachers in the form of year-long “residencies” under the direction of experienced, mentor teachers. But in their rush to add new teachers, California school districts may be overlooking one of the most cost-effective ways to raise teacher quality.

A new Brookings Institute study, “The Power of Teacher Selection to Improve Education,” offers compelling evidence that picking higher quality teaching candidates on the front end of the hiring process, can make big differences in teacher quality. Brookings found that job applicants “with higher GPAs and those from more selective colleges performed systematically better in the classroom than otherwise identical candidates.” In fact the report found that the difference between applicants in the top quartile and the bottom quartile were so big they were the “equivalent to the improvement that an average teacher makes between her first and third year on the job. These results suggest that improving teacher selection can be a relatively low cost way to improve the teacher workforce.” 

If California is going to continue making a huge financial investment in new teachers, improving teacher selection is crucial to improving teacher quality. Focusing on a hiring process that identifies the best teaching candidates will help students in the classroom immediately. It can also reduce the number of low-performing teachers in classrooms and the costs associated with trying to dismiss them.    
  
Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation.This column first appeared in The Orange County Register.

Lisa Snell was the director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.