Discretion in Hiring

Two common practices involving hiring decisions currently interfere with a principal’s ability to run a school as effectively as possible. The first is that the power to hire teachers is often not delegated to the principals who run the schools, but rather to superintendents or the district’s human resources staff. This can be counterproductive. Principals will usually know the needs of their students far better than district-level personnel will, meaning principals are more likely to hire effective teachers. Furthermore, empowering principals to make key hiring decisions can help strengthen the relationships between new teachers and their principals.

Some who favor a leading role for district officials in hiring teachers argue that district involvement is necessary to maintain equality between a district’s schools. They claim that without the district’s involvement, some principals will be more successful at competing for personnel, leaving their schools with more good teachers than other schools.

Inequalities often occur anyway, however, and they are probably a better reason to remove weak principals than they are to deprive principals of the primary responsibility for hiring their schools’ most important personnel. In addition, the value of giving an individual school the greatest level of autonomy to serve its own students should be given real weight. As John Chubb and Terry Moe observed in their landmark book "Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools":

The key to effective education rests with unleashing the productive potential that is already present in the schools and their personnel. It rests with granting them the autonomy to do what they do best. As our study of American high schools documents, the freer schools are from external control — the more autonomous, the less subject to bureaucratic constraint — the more likely they are to have effective organizations.[205]

The second problem related to hiring concerns "seniority-based teacher employment rights." In Michigan, as in many other union states nationwide, collectively bargained contracts often have provisions that grant seniority-determined preferences in layoffs[*] and in teacher transfers.[†] This means that when layoffs occur (usually when schools cut teaching positions due to austerity measures or shrinking enrollments), the district must begin with the employees who have the least seniority. The decision, in other words, is not driven by questions of teacher quality.

Much the same is true of transfers from one school to another: When a teaching vacancy arises in a school building, first preference in filling the position is often given to district teachers with more years of service. When a teacher exercises his or her seniority-based transfer rights, those in charge of hiring may not fill that vacancy with a new teacher or another district teacher with less seniority.

To address these constraints on management’s considerations of teacher quality (and student needs), local school boards should negotiate changes to collective bargaining agreements so that principals have the authority to retain teachers based on effectiveness, rather than seniority, when layoffs occur. Especially given value-added assessment data measuring the contributions that teachers make to student achievement gains, principals should be empowered to make decisions about whom to retain.

A second reform to principals’ hiring discretion concerns seniority-based teacher transfer rights. One cost of such policies is that principals cannot hire the best candidate to meet the specific needs of a particular student population.[**] Some researchers (for example, Susan Moore Johnson and Richard Ingersoll) challenge the notion that such union policies harm student learning or that such policies, in fact, significantly limit principal discretion at all.[‡]

But ample evidence exists to refute this claim. For example, evidence from The New Teacher Project’s study of hiring patterns in five large, anonymous urban districts supports the assertion that collectively bargained seniority-based teacher employment rights have impaired principals’ hiring discretion. Jessica Levin, Jennifer Mulhern and Joan Schunck, the study’s authors, found that in a given year approximately 40 percent of vacancies were filled by teachers exercising their seniority-based employment rights.[206] Although it may be possible that the veteran teachers who filled those particular slots would have been the principal’s choice, the implication of this study is that these vacancies were not filled by the best available candidates.

In a recent study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Frederick Hess and Coby Loup review the collective bargaining agreement in Detroit and report that principals may well be restricted in hiring decisions because of seniority-based transfer preferences.[207]In an earlier Fordham Foundation study, Steven Adamowski, Susan Bowles Therriault and Anthony Cavanna surveyed school principals from a cross section of schools. These principals worked in district schools in three states, and through surveys and interviews, the researchers sought "to determine principals’ perceptions of their ability to influence the various functions of their schools; those functions that principals perceive as most important in meeting school performance goals and accountability demands; and those areas where principals’ lack of control constituted a serious barrier to effective leadership in raising student achievement."[208] One hundred percent of principals in this study reported perceiving control over hiring to be essential, but only 26.7 percent felt that they had a "great deal of autonomy" in this area.[209]

Thus, research supports the contention that principals face restrictions on local hiring due to seniority-based teacher employment rights, but this evidence does not consider the negative unintended consequences that result from such policies. One such consequence of seniority-based transfer policies is that schools serving disadvantaged students often find themselves staffed with lower-quality teachers.[210] When district contracts give teachers with seniority the option to choose their school of assignment, teachers routinely choose to move out of schools serving disadvantaged students.[211] As Marguerite Roza and Paul Hill wrote in their paper on intradistrict spending inequities for the Brookings Institution:

Teachers leave these assignments in part because they are not compensated differentially at a high enough level to encourage them to stay. These teachers value the perceived benefits of working in a school with fewer disadvantaged students, such as fewer discipline problems and students who are more ready to learn, over any monetary benefit they receive in schools with more disadvantaged students.[212]

This teacher sorting impacts the teacher quality distribution because high-poverty schools must constantly fill vacancies with beginning teachers, and research shows that beginning teachers are generally less able, at least in their first few years. By comparison, schools in wealthier areas benefit from having a much larger applicant pool from which to choose, thereby increasing the probability that they will select the most effective teachers to meet their particular students’ needs.[213]

[*] Technically, the layoffs in question are known as “reductions in force,” meaning that employees are temporarily or permanently suspended due to budget cuts or student enrollment declines, not for poor performance.

[†] An example of the role of seniority in layoff, or RIF, situations can be found at: “Contract Quick Points” (MEA-NEA Local 1, L'Anse Creuse, 2006), www.iammea.org/lcea/contract_points.htm#staff%20reduction (accessed May 21, 2008).

[**] In “Collective Bargaining and the Performance of the Public Schools,” Terry Moe writes, “And when contract rules guarantee teachers seniority-based transfer rights, they ensure that teachers cannot be allocated to their most productive uses.”

[‡] In “Who Stays in Teaching and Why: A Review of the Literature on Teacher Retention,” Susan Moore Johnson, Jill Harrison Berg and Morgaen L. Donaldson supported their argument by citing Richard M. Ingersoll, “Out-of-Field Teaching, Educational Inequality, and the Organization of Schools: An Exploratory Analysis” (Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, 2002), http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/OutOfField-RI-01-2002.pdf (accessed May 21, 2008). Johnson, Berg and Donaldson wrote: “Many people believe that principals’ hands are tied by bureaucratic and union restrictions when they assign teachers. However, Ingersoll concludes: ‘[S]chools with unions do not have more out-of-field teaching’ (p. 25). His analysis shows that, even with the many constraints on their discretion — teacher union work rules, seniority-based assignments, school district regulations, class-size guidelines, and contractual regulations — principals still have ‘an unusual degree of discretion in staffing decisions.’”

Conversations with members of Michigan’s education community suggest that there is variation in the discretion in hiring that principals have in districts across Michigan. In some districts, the superintendent’s office is primarily responsible for these decisions, while in others, principals play an integral role.