Report: Plodding pace costs top teachers

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

WASHINGTON For five years, Roni Cooper tried to get a teaching job at a New Orleans public school. She had experience, credentials and an interest in working in the hard-to-fill field of special education just the combination schools want.

No one would even take her application.

Finally, at a job fair in May, she met the new leaders of the school district and gave them her story. It wasn't the first one they'd heard about a plodding, mismanaged process. Within a week, they promised her work. She's now teaching deaf elementary school students.

''In some of these inner cities, it's just nightmarish,'' Cooper said about the hiring routine. ''They're missing people who want to do this for tiny amounts of money.''

A nationwide report released this month supports her view: Urban schools are losing high-qualified candidates because of dysfunctional personnel departments and sluggish hiring timelines.

It's the central theme of the analysis by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps some of the country's largest school districts recruit teachers.

By late summer of a given year, when many urban districts make job offers, many candidates have fled for suburban systems that move faster in recruitment, the report said. The lost prospects, it added, are more likely to have better college grades and a degree in their teaching field than those hired in the cities.

''Right in front of their faces are the very teachers these districts need to hire,'' said Jessica Levin, a co-author of the report.

The findings are based on analyses of job applications at four urban districts in the Southwest, Midwest and East, all given access in exchange for anonymity. Project leaders also conducted phone and e-mail surveys and conducted focus groups with university faculty, teachers and others to put the findings in perspective.

The problems in the selected school districts are representative of many city school systems, said Levin. Cumbersome application reviews, poor customer service and a lack of urgency are common barriers, the report said.

But so are policies outside the control of personnel departments, it added.

Some teachers are allowed to provide virtually no notice that they plan to resign or retire, leaving schools in the dark about coming vacancies until the fall.

Often, the report said, schools must hire union-protected teachers who want to transfer from other schools, which slows the process and prevents principals from hiring whomever they want.

Many state and local budgets also aren't set until the end of June, if not later, causing financial uncertainty that put schools at a disadvantage, it said.

The report called for those policies to be changed, a task that a coalition of large urban districts called daunting.

''One can say, 'Well, just change it,' but sometimes that means either going back to the bargaining table or going to the legislature and changing law,'' said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. ''Neither thing is always very simple to do.''

Casserly did praise the report for raising important issues and said his group will work with The New Teacher Project to pursue improvements.

On balance, the report fairly reflects tendencies of urban schools and may even underestimate how poorly their personnel departments run, said Adam Urbanski, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most urban teachers.

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