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Is There a Leak in Your Teacher Applicant Pipeline?

Recruiting & Hiring

Teacher writing on whiteboard smiling at camera

Schools and districts around the nation have suffered critical teacher shortages for many decades. But lately, the shortage of teachers seems to be growing from a small subset of subjects and grade levels into roles that previously commanded many applications. The presumed reason for the shortage is that people just aren’t attracted to teaching anymore, but our recent report, A Leak in the Pipeline: How Hiring Bias Might Be Compounding the Teacher Shortage, demonstrates that teacher shortages may actually be exacerbated by problematic hiring processes

After exploring extensive recruiting and hiring data from over 800 K-12 organizations in 45 states over the past three school years, our team at the Frontline Research & Learning Institute discovered that some educators are more likely to advance through the interview process if they possess certain characteristics.

The findings beg the question: could district teacher selection and hiring practices be contributing to turnover in the teaching profession? And if so, what can school districts do to make sure they’re hiring for teacher quality and educator-school fit?

What we know about teacher applicant pools

We reviewed over 1 million unique applications from June 2014 to July 2017 and found that applicants from commercial job boards such as Monster and K12JobSpot comprise a hefty portion of districts’ applicant pools. A full 40 percent of teaching candidates with active licenses came from commercial job boards — but accounted for only 12 percent of new hires. Meanwhile, word of mouth referrals accounted for just under 15 percent of candidates, but over 30 percent of new hires.

This revealed an interesting disparity between applicant sources (where candidates are coming from) and who is actually hired. In other words, when it comes to getting hired in a school district, it’s almost all about who you know.

Chart showing breakdown of percent of applicants by referral source

The data further revealed that roughly one-third (32 percent) of educator applicants were applying for new teaching positions within the first three years of teaching. That finding reinforces previous external research suggesting that turnover is higher for new teachers, who often leave their roles within six years of starting. Nevertheless, the findings together raise the question: if teachers began their careers in a position or district that was a great fit for them, would the education community see significantly lower teacher turnover?

Chart showing breakdown of percent of applicants by years of experience from July 2014 through June 2017

Likeability bias — a possible cause for poor fit?

Likeability bias is a known phenomenon in human resources circles — it refers to the increased likelihood that a candidate will be judged positively if the hiring manager believes the applicant is like him or her. We hypothesize that likability bias is playing an outsized role in school hiring based upon the frequency with which school districts hire candidates through known sources, and how infrequently they hire those who are less-known.

Consider this: “word of mouth” may be so influential in the hiring process not because it guarantees that a candidate is a good fit, but because it makes a candidate simply seem more likeable. And given that word of mouth referrals account for a disproportionately large percent of new hires, it’s entirely possible that likeability bias could have a significant impact on hiring decisions in our school systems. But, it does not necessarily mean they are a good fit for the school.

This is a problem: we know that subjectivity (such as likeability bias) in the hiring process can contribute to poor hiring decisions and, consequently, higher teacher turnover.

Hiring based on fit, not word of mouth

A more rigorous, objective hiring process based on best practices could help school districts mitigate the effect of likeability bias and improve educator-school fit.

Here’s how:

  • Define specific qualities on which to screen candidates
  • Develop a structured, standardized interviewing process
  • Ensure that everyone involved in interviewing is adequately trained
  • Require applicants to demonstrate competency in content knowledge and pedagogy, while considering school demographics and needs

Ultimately, the goal of reducing subjectivity at each stage is not to get rid of the human element in hiring, but to ensure an objective, fair hiring process — one that leads to choosing high-quality educators, every time.

Additional Resources

Hear a superintendent’s 5 steps for choosing an applicant screening tool to support an objective, research-based hiring process.

Read the blog post at FrontlineEducation.com  

Sarah SilvermanSarah Silverman

Dr. Sarah Silverman, Ph.D. is Vice President at Whiteboard Advisors where she advises on education, workforce and wellness policy. Her prior work includes managing the Pre-K-12 education portfolio at National Governors Association Education and consulting with states and districts on performance management and teacher evaluation policy reform at TNTP.