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Often, Teachers Are Hired Based on Word of Mouth. Here's What That Means

Contract-closer-look-560x292Blog-Getty.jpgHere's a simple fact that could be contributing to both shortages and diversity gaps in school districts: Teachers are often hired by word of mouth.

A recent study by the Frontline Research and Learning Institute found that 40 percent of teacher candidates applied to open positions via job boards—but only 12 percent of applicants were hired from that pool. In contrast, about 15 percent of applications came from referrals—but among that group, 30 percent were hired. (The institute is a division of Frontline Education, which is a K-12 software company.) 

It makes sense, the study authors say: School leaders are hiring people who they think will be a good fit, and personal referrals make a candidate seem likeable. (Previous research shows that hiring managers are more likely to hire candidates they personally like.) But this approach might actually contribute to shortages—and, as another paper explores, it could also hinder the amount of teacher diversity in the district. 

The Frontline authors looked at three years of data from over 800 school districts and charter schools, studying nearly 1.1 million job applications. They found that 68 percent of educators are hired from "known" sources—referrals and district or school websites—even though only 41 percent of applications are from those categories. 

But these teachers may not be sticking around, the study found: According to the data, nearly one-third of teachers leave within their first three years to go to another school, and another 20 percent leave within the three years after that. 

"We can reduce turnover by maximizing fit," the study authors wrote. "Fit should incorporate attention to best practices in hiring, which require applicants to demonstrate competency in content knowledge and pedagogy, while also considering the school demographics and specific needs." 

In other words: "Hiring should be focused more on credentials and experience, and less on word of mouth," they wrote. 


See also: Special Report: Getting and Keeping Good Teachers


These findings are echoed in a recent working paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research that looked at the effect of court-ordered hiring guidelines on teacher diversity. The Tangipahoa Parish school system in Lousiana is mandated by a federal court to make sure its teaching force is racially representative of the students in the school system. (The case and the new findings from the NBER study are explored in a recent Atlantic article.) 

The court order was largely ignored until 2010, when the court reaffirmed the decree and added that whenever a qualified black applicant is not chosen for a teaching position, the district had to explain why. Since then, the number of black teachers who were hired increased significantly. 

Still, the authors of the paper note that for this type of policy to be effective, there must be qualified black teachers in the applicant pool. The authors were not able to find data on the number or race of applicants to see if that was the case in the district—but according to a survey the authors conducted in an attempt to better understand the hiring process, about 81 percent of the teachers said that when they were applying, they had heard about job openings through word of mouth. The district's hiring process, the teachers said, was "decentralized, accelerated, and insular."

The paper's authors wrote that this could pose a problem for increasing diversity: In rural Louisiana, black applicants could be less likely than white applicants to hear about job openings through word of mouth because they could have different social and professional networks. (For instance, white applicants might hear about a listing from their white peers who are already teachers or administrators in the district.) A centralized job posting system might be a way to alleviate that concern, the paper's authors wrote.

A nationally representative Education Week Research Center survey of more than 500 K-12 teachers asked what districts should do differently to find and hire high-quality teachers. Twenty-two percent said districts should improve their job interview, screening, and selection processes. That was the third most common answer, just below improving pay and offering better working conditions. Ten percent of teachers said districts should increase their outreach and recruiting. 

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