District Trendline

Six steps to hire a strong teacher workforce

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Many districts and states are apprehensive about what the coming school year will bring, and especially about whether they will have enough qualified teachers to staff their classrooms. While the data so far has largely found that teachers left at slightly lower rates than usual during the first year of the pandemic, and that current attrition has returned to roughly normal,490 schools are unsure what to expect this fall.

However, districts do not have to—and should not—play a waiting game. Taking proactive, strategic steps in the hiring process can go a long way toward ensuring that every classroom is staffed with an effective teacher.

This District Trendline will share research and examples of six steps that districts can take in the coming months, as well as some considerations for those districts who may be faced with downsizing their workforce as student enrollment declines.

1) Anticipate your workforce needs by setting an early deadline for teachers to share their intent to return or resign.

Planning for staffing needs for the coming year requires a delicate balance of considering budgets, student enrollment, and teacher vacancies. The sooner districts know which teachers plan to resign or retire, the sooner districts can begin their search— and the more likely the search will hire stronger candidates.491

Looking at districts' teacher contracts or board policy language in large districts across the country using data from the  Teacher Contract Database,492 two-thirds of districts set a clear requirement for how far in advance teachers must give notice, while a third do not.

Considering either the number of days of notice that teachers must give, or the date by which they must give notice (compared to the first day of school in their district), more than a quarter of large districts (28%) require less than a month's notice before teachers must communicate their decision to resign or retire. Fewer than 10% of districts require more than three months' notice, which would be essential to start hiring early.

To enforce these deadlines, nearly half of districts apply consequences if teachers miss them. The most common are unspecified legal sanctions (16% of large districts) and rescinding or limiting teachers' licenses or ability to be rehired in the district or state (also 16% of large districts). Ten percent of districts levy a fine when teachers miss the deadline, and a few districts apply other consequences such as removing teachers' health coverage or imposing an unspecified consequence.

On the other hand, many districts offer a carrot rather than (or in addition to) a stick. Almost a third of large districts (30%) encourage teachers to submit their notice early, most often through offering a monetary incentive (27%). Some of these districts offer lump-sum bonuses; on the high end, Burlington School District (VT), which does not set a deadline for resignations, offers teachers with at least 15 years of service $5,000 if they give notice by December 31st (so long as they have adequate accumulated sick leave). St. Paul Public Schools (MN) gives teachers $3,500 if they give notice by December 1st, and $2,500 if they give notice by February 1st, plus up to $15,000 in payment for unused sick leave if they give enough advance notice. Smaller bonuses are more typical, though. 

Rather than set bonuses, districts will sometimes pay out teachers' unused sick leave (much as many companies pay out unused vacation time when someone resigns), sometimes paying out a higher percentage of unused sick leave the earlier the teacher gives notice. A small number of districts continue teachers' health insurance through the summer after teachers leave the district if they give advance notice of their intent to resign. The most unusual incentive arose in Memphis-Shelby County Schools (TN), where teachers who give early notice of their intent to resign no longer have to participate in professional development or non-curriculum after-school activities.

2) Use student teaching as a recruitment tool.

Building a strong workforce can start before prospective teachers even finish their preparation program. Research has found that while new teachers are likely to take their first job near their home, they are ten times more likely to take a first job near where they student taught.493 Districts that host more student teachers can also minimize teacher shortages: they tend to have fewer teachers with emergency credentials, regardless of how rural or urban they are.494

Think of student teaching as a semester-long job interview and an opportunity to set your new hires up for success. Recruit student teachers into the types of positions you expect to hire (e.g., aim to host student teachers in middle school, if this is an area likely to have vacancies). Seek to build a positive experience to entice aspiring teachers to stay, give them the tools to succeed (like pairing them with an effective cooperating teacher), 495 and make job offers to the most effective student teachers, since they are likely to be more effective new teachers.496 Collaborate with strong teacher preparation programs to build a student teaching program that supports training and recruiting effective novice teachers.

For more on how to leverage student teaching as a hiring tool, read Six steps to use student teachers to solve staffing challenges.

3) Look to former teachers as a potential hiring pool.

Teachers leave the classroom for many reasons, but that departure may not be permanent. A 2012 survey found that teachers who had left the classroom and returned constituted about a fifth of all newly hired teachers.497 Another study using a national longitudinal survey of beginning teachers found that of the people who left after Year 1, 33% later returned to teaching; of the people who left after Year 2, 25% returned.498 Teachers were most likely to return to teaching the school year after the one in which they had left (so a teacher who left after Year 1 is most likely to return in Year 3).

Teachers who returned to teaching were more likely to be female and had earned a higher salary while teaching (compared to those who did not return), but otherwise teacher characteristics, the types of schools in which teachers had worked (although these school characteristics did not include the proportion of students living in poverty), and their reasons for leaving had little relationship to their decision to return. The exception was that teachers who left hoping to earn more money in another field were 15 percentage points more likely to return.

This finding suggests that any teacher who has left the classroom may be open to returning. The state of Michigan recently leveraged this information in a "Welcome Back" campaign, targeting former teachers with specific outreach based on whether the teacher's license was still valid or not. Following the state's outreach efforts (coupled with changes to simplify the renewal of a lapsed license), Michigan recertified 160 educators, as well as hiring another 123 teachers who had previously left the classroom but still had valid licenses. 

While changes to recertification processes may come from the state, any district can keep contact information for teachers who leave their schools and can reach out to those former educators, especially those who were effective with students, with the message that "our students need educators like you in the classroom, and our district is ready to welcome you back," much as Michigan did.

4) Recruit from strong teacher preparation programs.

While every first-year teacher faces a learning curve, district and school leaders want a teacher who is starting as far ahead on that curve as possible. Focusing teacher recruitment efforts on higher-quality preparation programs can help home in on teachers who are more likely to be ready on day one.

Factors to consider include:

  • Program diversity: The research is clear: all students, and especially students of color, benefit from being assigned to teachers of color.499 NCTQ's Program Diversity Tool can identify the more racially diverse teacher preparation programs in your state. Focusing recruitment on more diverse programs may help to build the diversity of your teacher workforce.

  • Instruction in the essentials: Students' learning has been adversely impacted during the pandemic, widening existing inequities. Students' reading proficiency has suffered and math proficiency has declined even more,500 so it's even more critical that teachers are skilled in evidence-based practices. Prep programs vary widely in their attention to teaching the science of reading and the content and pedagogy of elementary mathematics. You can look for strong programs in your region in Early Reading, and in Elementary Mathematics.

  • Pass rates on licensure tests: In most states, anyone who earns a teaching license has to ultimately pass a licensure test (or several). However, prep programs or institutions with a higher average pass rate, especially on the first attempt, may be requiring more coursework that is aligned with what aspiring teachers are expected to know and teach. NCTQ has published pass rates for elementary content licensure tests at the institution level for 43 states and D.C. Some states independently publish this data for other subjects and grade spans.

5) Start as early as possible.

Mark your calendars...for March of next year. That's how early you should start hiring for the coming school year.

Recent research looking at job postings in Boston Public Schools found that when the district posted jobs before June, the teachers hired into these positions were more effective, more qualified (as measured by years of experience and certification in the subject of the job posting), and stayed in their position longer compared to teachers hired into positions posted after June.501 This hiring timeline reflected when teachers in the district tended to enter the job market. Aligning to the early start of applicants yielded the greatest number of job candidates, while jobs posted over the summer reached far fewer applicants.

Some districts are taking this news to heart. For example, after finding that their teachers hired in May were 20 percent more effective than teachers hired in August, the District of Columbia tripled the number of teachers the district hired by the end of June, between 2012 and 2015.502

6) Once you hire new teachers, set them up for success.

Too often, novice teachers are assigned to schools and classes where students have greater needs, a pernicious pattern that must be disrupted. For example, a study of Los Angeles Unified School District found that new teachers were disproportionately assigned to students who had lower achievement on tests, lower GPAs, lower subject-area achievement, and slightly higher suspension rates.503 This teacher assignment pattern is harmful for these students, who most need experienced, effective teachers, and it is counterproductive for new teachers, who may be less likely to stay in the classroom. Instead, support new teachers through providing mentors and consider assigning new teachers fewer classes or fewer subjects for which to prepare.

And finally: What if you're faced with making layoff decisions instead of hiring decisions?

While the news media has been focused on stories of teacher shortages, another story is unfolding—declining student enrollment, according to studies by NPR and American Enterprise Institute. Lower enrollment may necessitate that some districts let teachers go. About 30% of large districts have "last in, first out" or "LIFO" policies, meaning that teacher layoffs are based in part or entirely on teachers' seniority. This approach could have especially devastating consequences for efforts to diversify the workforce, as newer cohorts of teachers may be more racially diverse (see, for example, a recent study out of Massachusetts). Basing layoffs instead on measures of teacher effectiveness may help mitigate this risk.

The last few years have brought an outsized set of challenges, and our schools have tried to rise to meet the demands wrought by the pandemic. As summer progresses, the next step is to ensure that every student learns from an effective teacher.