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When Hiring Teachers, District Leaders Prioritize 'Cultural Fit.' That Can Be a Problem

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When hiring teachers, district leaders prioritize "cultural fit" above all else, including training and experience. But most are unable to measure what exactly that means. 

That's according to a new study from the Frontline Research and Learning Institute, which asked 594 school and district hiring managers from across the United States to describe their hiring preferences. Slightly more than half of the respondents were involved in recruiting and hiring decisions at the school level (like principals) and the rest served at the district level, mostly in human resources. Most of the respondents were from urban and suburban school districts. (The institute is a division of Frontline Education, which is a K-12 software company.) 

Researchers from the institute have previously found that district hiring managers prefer candidates who are recommended to them via word of mouth, even though the majority of candidates come from sources like commercial job boards. The researchers were concerned that this could hinder teacher diversity and increase teacher turnover, if the personal connection is prioritized over fit.

In this new study, researchers learned that most district hiring managers who prefer the candidates referred by word of mouth also emphasized cultural fit in their decisionmaking. 

The vast majority of hiring managers considered cultural fit to be at least somewhat important—more so than any other hiring factor, including teacher training, teaching experience, racial and ethnic diversity, and geographic diversity. 

hiring.pngBut cultural fit is a nebulous term, and researchers learned that district managers cannot explain what exactly it means. 

"There is no common definition," said Elizabeth Combs, the managing director of the institute and a co-author of the report. "There is no definition that even individual hiring managers have articulated [on] what cultural fit means, and therefore there are very few folks measuring the extent to which they believe a candidate is qualified based on cultural fit."

Hiring for cultural fit extends beyond the education sector, and experts have said the practice could contribute to a lack of diversity across different industries, since people gravitate toward others with similar backgrounds. The teaching workforce is about 80 percent white. 

In an essay for Harvard Business Review, Patty McCord, the former chief talent officer at Netflix, urged employers to stop hiring for cultural fit and instead focus on people's skills. 

"What most people really mean when they say someone is a good fit culturally is that he or she is someone they'd like to have a beer with," McCord wrote. "But people with all sorts of personalities can be great at the job you need done." 

Of course, districts have valid criteria that falls under the idea of cultural fit. For example, Combs said, one district wanted to ensure that all teachers who are hired have a growth mindset. But she said she's concerned that the overall emphasis on cultural fit could lead to unintentional bias that could undermine efforts to promote diversity—including racial, ethnic, and geographic. 

"There needs to be a definition that is clearly articulated, and there needs to be some way of measuring candidates outside that definition," she said. 

To that end, the institute's researchers recommend an "information-rich" hiring process, which could include things like sample lessons—something only 30 percent of responding hiring managers say they require. And Combs said having a rubric in which hiring managers score candidates would lessen their dependence on practices that rely on gut feelings. Few respondents said they have a protocol to ensure that evaluations of candidate quality and fit are measured against a consistent standard. 

Image via Getty; chart via Frontline

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