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Critical Care

Changing hiring practices is difficult, but essential

Thomas Hughes

Over 20 years ago, I accepted administrative responsibilities simultaneously overseeing special needs programming for three neighboring public school districts in Wisconsin. Rather than directing the bulk of my attention toward stressing exemplary paperwork first and foremost, as was done before me, I realized that hiring high-quality staff that was “right” for the situation was absolutely the most important challenge I could address as an effective administrator. To act on my beliefs proved to be a very challenging undertaking. It was one that opened my eyes to the legitimate need to vastly improve on the accepted “the way we have always done it” mentality about hiring practices that permeated much of K-12 education, and predated my time with my then current employers.

In the years that followed, I completed my dissertation on hiring, and went on to be a school superintendent for 14 more years, serving two school districts in Wisconsin. I was heavily involved in personnel matters in both settings, and did my best to attempt to raise the bar and improve upon existing hiring practices during my two tenures. That always included starting a conversation on best practices with board, administrative and other staff. It also included looking for outside resources for additional training on hiring. Finally, I made certain that our policies were as supportive of effective hiring as they could be. After I left, I heard differing accounts concerning what happened to those hiring efforts in the years that followed. That said, my passion for the topic has never diminished.

As an associate professor of educational leadership at Northern Arizona University, it is a bit discouraging to look back over 20 years of leadership and school improvement literature, and see how little attention the topic of hiring still receives in educational circles. Coming from my experiences both as an administrator, and now as a trainer of administrators, it is my hope to explain to readers why that long-term lack of attention matters. Further, it is my aim to share some constructive thoughts concerning what might be done to counter decades’ worth of neglect that has diminished the perceived importance of this topic. Most people I might ask would probably say hiring is “going well enough” where they are. For them my follow up question would be, “Have you ever considered exploring the benefits of improving your overall focus and practice?” Do you have any thoughts about why you might even want to attempt this? Having just put those questions out there for all of us, it is my aim in the pages that follow to share some of my reasons for why this topic should stand out much more than it does.

Backward by design

Research and experience, both in K-12 and higher education, have consistently shown that the focus on training for personnel related matters, particularly hiring, could legitimately be described as backward by design. Consider that there is typically no in depth preparatory training provided specifically on hiring in most graduate programs. More often than not, courses on human resources and personnel provide a perfunctory surface level walk through across the broader process of employee management as a whole. Some instructors might touch on several of the “avoid at all costs” legalities like never asking questions about age, race, or sexual orientation, as examples. Still, experience, research and networking with fellow academics alike show that focusing on the “do not” questions is very often about as “in depth” as it gets when it comes to “teaching hiring.”

As you reflect on this topic, think about how hiring is addressed locally. Check with your administrators and see who among them did any in depth coursework focused on hiring during their graduate program. See if that work concentrated on contending with changing teacher training or availability issues, the importance of personal dispositions, or anything moving them in the direction toward spending more quality time with fewer interviewed candidates. Check, if instead, they learned what they know about hiring from another administrator, who likely had much of what he or she knows about hiring handed down to them as well. Research shows this pattern of handing down the same approach from one generation to the next is very much the norm. How would you feel if technology were addressed this way? What aspect of your core operation would you be comfortable with, knowing that the bulk of the foundation on which it rested was brought along this way?

Remember, though we will see there is little attention given to training, hiring is process that leads to a decision that is supposed to pay significant dividends for decades to come. This is a decision that is made repeatedly in each school setting -- every year. This is a decision that ties directly into at least two-thirds of your overall operating budget. Hiring is the starting point for developing your educational team. Does the hiring, related policy, ongoing conversation, and professional development receive the local attention you would expect for something that dominates two-thirds of the budget in your schools? If you are on top of this, that is terrific news. Undoubtedly you keep this topic current and as visible as anything else you do. Many organizations are not in your position, as little training or even “talk” takes place in many educational K-12 or higher educational settings. As we will continue to explore, this widespread lack of focus for such a significant aspect of sustainable operations visibly denotes the backward manner through which the broader topic of hiring is viewed and ultimately addressed.

A major characteristic that makes the overall design of personnel training appear so backward is the significant amount of graduate study focused on essentially anything other than teaching leaders how to go out and make the best hire possible. Instead of focusing on “acquiring best product,” instruction focuses heavily on correcting whatever product you have brought in through intense evaluation and remediation, when and where needed. In and of itself, this training, typically contained within a dedicated course such as “supervision of instruction” is not a bad thing. What is truly backward is accepting how much effort goes into preparing to evaluate and “fix” a person who was selected as result of such limited attention to best practice or training on hiring in the first place.

Though standards and pathways to the classroom are changing, most would agree we have tended to universally assume the “qualified’ candidates we screen are at least competent. Despite that initial assumption, just think about how much interviewers regularly and heavily ask “competence” questions anyhow. Master educators all know that the relationship a teacher forms with students is the overwhelming difference maker in the classroom. Still, the primary focus of hiring tends to be about competence instead. But it also needs to be about personal dispositions and best fit, which may or may not be a high priority focus in many places. Why would we want to hire a highly regarded, trained and capable person who does not genuinely fit the current setting we are looking to fill? If the answer is there is a shortage of interested candidates, my response is that dispositions matter even more in these instances. Without the right person, you will be looking again for that “next” person in a matter of a year or two.

Sadly, and despite all best intentions, there are those times when we end up regretting our hiring choices. Fortunately, there is typically help for these kinds of misguided decisions, as most administrators will eventually receive some type of formal targeted professional development on how to successfully terminate an employee. Instead of just accepting terminations as a part of the process, does anyone think about where the relationship went wrong? Do we just assume and accept that an otherwise sufficiently trained and “qualified” well-selected hire just went bad, however unfortunate that may be? Does the recurring need to terminate someone that is judged to be capably trained not suggest it would pay at least some dividends to learn how to make a better local hiring decision in the first place?

Imagine, by comparison, if the very classroom instruction teachers are hired for were designed following this same backward direction being outlined here. We would be focusing the bulk of our professional development resources only for those teachers who have reached a point in the year and the classroom where they need to efficiently fail their students. By similar design, we would typically have them intervene only when students had fallen sufficiently behind. Yet, were a single student to fail, based on this backward design, the leadership of a school system would rightfully never hear the end of it. Thankfully this example is far from being standard instructional practice. Just don’t forget, whenever a teacher fails because of the backward design of this whole hiring topic, there will be instances where multiple students have already suffered as result.

Significant costs involved

Historically, education has been fine with the longstanding stagnant approach to hiring. Unlike governance level leaders, however, most of these decision makers do not have ultimate responsibility for an annual budget that reaches into millions of dollars. Where two-thirds of that budget is dominated by the decisions described here, with ramifications that extend often for years on end. This reality should concern everyone, not just those responsible for the tax payers’ budget. And that figure really only represents local financial costs. Multiply the financial ramifications of ineffective hiring decisions more broadly, and some place the national cost as high as into billions of dollars each year. That said, how can any local entity, let alone the overall institution of education itself, afford to throw that kind of money away without even considering tapping into some of the already available improvements to the traditional hiring mentality?

More concerning than any dollar amount should be those centered “human” cost. Everyone knows who the top teachers are. Parents ask for them all the time. Rules are regularly made to contend with these requests. School leaders know the quality of a teacher matters, which is why initiatives such as “strategic staffing” attempt to place the very best staff members in the most challenging settings. In contrast, most people also know who is struggling and perhaps “not making it” as a teacher. The potential damage to a classroom full of students in one of these “poor hire” scenarios is difficult to make right, and can take years, according to popular research. What is often overlooked, in addition, is that the damage typically extends beyond the immediate classroom, as grade-level colleagues often end up doing double duty attempting to rectify what they can instructionally for the benefit of students and the health of overall organization itself. Not only does the budget suffer. The administration must intervene and hire all over again, all after a potentially lengthy dismissal process. Even more importantly, student learning losses often extend beyond the immediate classroom and typically linger for more than that single year.

Thinking forward first

Rather than living with backward design, isn’t it time to consistently incorporate forward thinking steps, and both recognize as well as treat hiring as the most important first step we take in making our schools sustainably great? Isn’t it time to reach out to the very people who can legitimately make a difference with this lingering problem that no one seems interested in taking on? That is why this article has been written specifically for governing board leaders who are uniquely empowered to make a difference that no other body or group has honestly even attempted in decades. The number of courses in graduate programs have mostly been cut back as of late, not added to. So, it is not likely that the added impetus for change and greater attention to “teaching hiring” will come from the arena I am currently working in. Nor will it likely be part of a national standard, or state licensing initiative from any bodies with oversight for administrator training, because the broader topic does not even make the list there, let alone show the potential to rise to the top. But, it is a change in thinking that you can make both at your own local level, as well as through your state and national organizations.

For me, the realization that you are the ones who hold the key to unlocking decades of stagnation came years ago, from a situation where I worked. As a relatively new superintendent, I ran into an issue where there was disagreement about policy on hiring, and whether it had been followed satisfactorily in the past or immediate instance in which it was being applied. The interesting thing about disagreements like these is that policy was largely unquestioned most of the time. Everyone pretty much accepted policy and practice for what it was once it was in place. In this one instance, there was a question that needed to be addressed. Policy did not give enough direction, and up until that point no one could see the limitations of having policy and practice that focused exclusively on what “not to do.” It pointed to the need to have policy that first says “here is our end goal” or “here is what needs to be done to be successful with hiring.” Capitalizing on the practical wisdom of my governing board, we instituted a new locally developed policy that did not lose track of compliance and accountability, but managed to stress the development of a proactive hiring mentality as the primary focus coming out of our policy.

Forward thinking thoughts

My chief motivation for writing this was to help governing board members see they really do have the inside track on making one of the most overlooked but potentially significant positive impacts on student learning in years. Hopefully in reading this, you have acquired some heightened awareness and perhaps even started developing interest in making an investment into this topic. Here are some ideas that could help you take things to the next level.

  • Acknowledge first that as policy is increasingly becoming “mass produced” and written by non-educators including attorneys, that addressing actual educational needs will continue to become less of a priority.
  • Look at your existing policy on hiring. Does it look like attorneys wrote it, or does it look more like someone who sees the value in having the best people in classrooms created it? Is it more about being an orderly process and not being sued, or is it perhaps more dynamic than that, and about continuing to grow as an organization through the selection process?
  • Look to districts and professional organizations for model policies that do more than speak merely to the legalities of hiring, but also address forward reaching vision and professional development considerations.
  • Initiate a dialogue with administrators and other staff concerning past practices and new possible directions. Discuss the qualities and dispositions that are important in your work setting, and how they may be changing. Link evaluation outcomes to sought after targets in the selection process.
  • Make the statement “Hiring is the most important thing we do” a statement that has meaning, and is understood as well as valued across your organization. In my research, I found plenty of people who say it, but very few who meant it. Watch what happens when everyone knows you do mean it.
  • Articulate your local organization’s position through internal dialogue and then subsequently through policy that not only spells out specific training and selection steps, but also communicates, fosters and reinforces an “attitude” about the importance of hiring the best and continuing to evolve in that direction as a learning organization.
Investigate available screening and existing selection processes that allow you to spend more direct time with fewer people – and allow you to spend “more personal time” with the finalists for any position.
Thomas Hughes ( is an associate professor at Northern Arizona University and a former superintendent in Wisconsin.
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