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Teacher Quality

Provide great tools, partnership and training, and then get out of their way.

When the Madison Metropolitan School District began an effort to overhaul teacher recruitment, screening and hiring, they had their work cut out for them. An internal assessment of the district’s human capital management practices by an advisory group determined that significant changes were needed to support the district’s goal of building a thriving workforce. When Cross & Joftus partnered with the district in 2013, our initial assessment confirmed and identified a number of issues that were working against the district’s goals:

  • In a survey of principals, 96% overwhelmingly stated that they were not able to select from a diverse pool of teachers to meet the needs of their students.
  • Two-thirds of principals felt that they did not have sufficient time to hire new staff before the start of the school year.
  • Two-thirds of principals felt that central office pre-screening did not help select teachers with the skills needed to drive student achievement.
  • Most external offers were made in August and September, costing the district great candidates who were hired by neighboring districts earlier in the year.

Over the last school year, C&J had the honor of supporting Madison as the district worked to rethink teacher recruiting, screening and selection. Now in its first hiring cycle under a newly created process, the district is already a full month ahead of schedule in hiring for the 2015-2016 school year. Principals report that they have the tools and support they need and that they are getting candidates that are better suited to meet the needs of their students. As one principal shared, “We’re now spending our time… finding and hiring the best candidate[s] instead of defending our decision not to hire less qualified candidates.” Teachers report that they are participating in a process that allows them to represent their best skills.

So how did Madison do it?

The district began by listening to principals and teachers. Principals and teachers raised critical issues with internal transfer and surplus processes that slowed down hiring. Madison gathered principals’ input on the surplus process and streamlined the internal transfer process, shifting from a seniority-based system to a more performance-based system. Principals and teachers now have the opportunity to interview before a final surplus decision is made.

Stakeholders then identified what skills mattered most for Madison teachers. For Madison principals and teachers, eight competencies were found to be critical for new hires, including the need for high expectations for every student, quality instructional practice and cultural competence. District leaders realized that it was important for teachers to be willing to address matters of race, language acquisition and unique student learning needs, and to value and welcome student home culture and language as assets for teaching and learning.

TEACH Madison was launched to attract a diverse pool of teachers to the district. The HR team also engaged diverse leaders and staff in schools to support recruitment and serve as points of contact for high-potential candidates.

HR completed Customer Needs Assessments with every school principal early in the hiring season. Principals were able to sit down with their HR Analysts to share their anticipated openings and staffing needs well before the hiring season began. This allowed HR to forecast trends in openings and adjust recruitment plans based on the needs of schools.

HR provided an initial screen and built a customized slate of candidates specifically tailored to the needs of each school. Initial feedback from principals has been overwhelmingly positive that candidates are a much better fit for their individual school needs.

We created a hiring toolkit and screening tools for principals to use to screen candidates using the specific Madison context, needs and competencies as the foundation for performance-based screening. These tools included:

  • Interview question banks
  • An observed lesson plan activity
  • A data review and analysis activity
  • A school walkthrough activity

Principals have the flexibility to use the tools in the way that works best for their unique context, engaging other teachers, community members and even students as part of the interview process. Tools have been designed to enable schools to apply their unique context within each activity, so the same interview will feel different in each school but maintains the integrity of a rigorous and competency-driven interview.

Technology has been updated to allow principals to access rich candidate information, including structured competency-based references and interview summaries from other principals so that principals don’t have to recreate interviews if another school has already interviewed and recommended a candidate.

By shifting the role of HR to be true thought partners, and by providing principals with best-practice screening tools, Madison was able to substantially improve principals’ abilities to fill teaching positions with the most qualified candidates that fit their students’ needs. In the process, the district eliminated time-intensive processes that did not support these goals and greatly reduced the time it takes to fill an open position.

Madison has made significant strides in this work, and we believe the district is well on its way to serving as a national model for school-based screening and selection. We look forward to following their continued progress in this great work and to watching Madison’s students flourish as they benefit from a strong cohort of incoming teachers next school year.

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Author(s): Monica S. Rosen

Watching the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers—now led by the great LeBron James—struggle early in the season got me thinking: What does it take for a group of great individual players, including one of the best players in history, to work together to become a championship team? And, what can schools learn from such basketball teams?

The best basketball teams (see the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as a great example) have hugely talented and hard working players, but they commit to implementing a system that maximizes the likelihood of team success, sometimes to the detriment of individual players’ statistics such as scoring. Similarly, in many cases, coaches with strong beliefs about how the game should be played adjust their approach to take most advantage of the skills of the players on their team and work endlessly to ensure that players understand and buy into the role that they are being asked to play.

Great schools and school districts are just like this. The San Antonio Spurs of school districts is Garden City Public Schools (GCPS), which serves about 7,500 students (three-quarters of whom are economically disadvantaged) way out in western Kansas.

Measuring Garden City’s success and growth is difficult. Due to difficulties with the statewide rollout of new assessments last year, neither Garden City nor any other district in the state has summative data from 2013-14, and the data from 2012-2013 was based on a state assessment that had not been aligned to the new standards. Moreover, the district switched formative assessment providers last year so trend data are not yet available.

That said, GCPS has been on an upward trajectory since 2008 when it joined the Kansas Learning Network (KLN).  KLN, created and managed for five years by Cross & Joftus (C&J), was the Kansas State Department of Education’s intervention for the lowest performing schools and districts in the state. Participating districts received an intensive needs assessment, coaching, and other supports.  We assigned Joan Evans—the LeBron James of educators—to serve as the coach for GCPS.

Since 2008, GCPS has been focused like a laser on proving Michael Fullan’s maxim: “Every successful school and system in the world proves the point that only collective engagement will get us the results we are seeking.” GCPS—which, like the Spurs, has enjoyed very stable leadership—has become obsessed with the need to include teachers in the district’s planning and decision-making processes in order to build capacity and buy-in to what they are trying to do while emphasizing the need to build systems that are consistent grade to grade and school to school. These systems include most notably the best “instructional rounds” I have ever seen. The rounds are low-stake classroom observations by administrators and teachers that create and enforce clear agreements about what effective teaching looks like. The data from these rounds are analyzed and discussed in principal meetings to understand school implementation of high-impact instructional strategies and identify types of coaching and supports needed to continue making progress.

GCPS leadership would tell you that they got off to a rocky start, much like this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Teachers and principals didn’t understand the purpose of the observations and didn’t trust how the data would be used. But the district stayed with it and the culture has been transformed. Teachers and school administrators now lead professional development and proudly discuss the changes that have been made at meetings and conferences. And student achievement—though difficult to track over time—seems to be climbing steadily according to Darren Dennis, a senior GCPS administrator and a key architect of the reforms.

Unfortunately, there are no trophies to be won in education. But if you want to see a district that has created a championship culture, go visit Garden City, Kansas (just give yourself a lot of time to get there).


Read more about the C&J approach to School, District, and State Improvement.

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Author(s): Scott Joftus

We know that having access to a great teacher really matters for student achievement and in any school system, it is the principal who is best positioned to ensure that each and every student gets to have a great teacher every year.  So when school systems are working to boost the capacity of their workforce, it’s no surprise that they quickly turn their attention to the leader at the helm of each school.

The work to understand what it takes to be an effective principal in any system is not being taken lightly.  Across several states and districts, we’ve seen firsthand how important it is to understand what school leaders must be able to know and do from day one on the job.

A growing number of districts are jump-starting this work by identifying competencies needed for the principalship. Developing leader competencies can play a central role towards boosting principal quality.  Competencies support effective principals by:

  1. Clarifying what is most essential for the principal to know and do well
  2. Laying the foundation for all recruitment, screening, selection, placement, development and support of principals
  3. Creating transparency among school leaders about both what is expected of them, and what skills aspiring leaders need to develop before pursuing a principalship
  4. Informing system-level decisions about how to align the right supports to enable principals to successfully lead their schools

Designing a competency framework can be tricky work, so here I offer some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

  • Principals and those who supervise them must be closely engaged in defining their most critical and essential work
  • Leaders who supervise principals must play a leading role in developing the competency framework
  • Competency development requires multiple iterations, and a flexibility to continue to update the competencies
  • Through application of the competencies to principal recruitment, screening, selection, evaluation and development, leaders will gain a working knowledge of the competencies leading to ongoing refinement

We have seen interesting practices in our work to support principal quality efforts. Madison Metropolitan School District engaged a Principal Advisory Group to develop AP competencies, using the newly developed principal competency framework as the foundation. Hillsborough County Public Schools identified how competencies develop at each point in the principal pipeline, from teacher leader, to aspiring AP, to sitting AP, to sitting principal.  The district then aligned all preparation development to support the expected progression throughout the career pathway. Lastly, the Community Superintendents in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools personally screened each candidate through the first revised principal screening process, and then worked together to further refine the competency rubric and interviewing process based on what they learned when interviewing principal candidates.

For those interested in reading more about this topic, here are two good resources from the Wallace Foundation:

Recent Leader Standards, The Wallace Foundation, 2013

Six Districts Begin the Principal Pipeline Initiative, Policy Studies Associates, Inc., July 2013

Learn more about C&J Partner Monica Rosen and the Human Capital Management practice area.

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Author(s): Monica S. Rosen

How frequently does the phrase “these kids just don’t think” come to mind in reference to students in your classroom or school?

Every wonder how or when you really learned how to think critically and strategically?

How are you teaching your students to think in this way?

The Common Core State Standards call for students to think in ways that allow them to identify and consider multiple perspectives, reason and critique their thinking, and produce new thinking through writing and interacting with multiple texts. These standards are best implemented in a “thinking classroom” where students demonstrate their learning in ways that go beyond memorization of facts, skills, and processes. Before students can begin to think critically, however, they need to know how to “think about their thinking.” Metacognitive strategies can promote student development of the kind of thinking aligned to the Common Core Standards.

Metacognition refers to higher-order thinking that involves active control over the cognitive processes engaged in learning: problem solving, analysis, and monitoring comprehension needed for lifelong learning success.  Students empower metacognition when they consider what is to be learned, make a plan to support their learning, make adjustments to their learning processes, and evaluate their progress toward attainment of learning goals.

Teaching strategies to unlock students’ metacognition include think-aloud, graphic organizers, reciprocal teaching, and self- questioning. In his book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, John Hattie reports that metacognitive strategies rank 13th out of 138 instructional strategies having a .69 effect size on increasing student achievement. Teachers should explicitly model these strategies and invite students to describe what’s going on inside their heads when thinking takes place. Doing so will allow students to become more aware of how they are learning and understand the perspective of others.

In what ways is your classroom a “thinking classroom”? What action can you take to ensure your students know how to think before asking them to think critically and analytically? Teaching students how to “think about their thinking” may be the key to unlocking the potential and power of the Common Core Standards.


Learn more about Connie Wehmeyer, C&J’s Director of Teaching and Learning and our support of school, district, and state implementation of the Common Core.



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Author(s): Connie Wehmeyer

“In the business world, everyone hates performance reviews and no one does them well,” concluded Brian Kropp, managing director of HR at CEB, on NPR’s Diane Rehm show. Kropp appeared with Donna Morris, senior vice president at Adobe, who agreed with his sentiment and added that Adobe—with 12,000 employees—was ending traditional performance reviews because employees and supervisors “despised” them.

As it is in business, so it is in education, where long-running criticism of ineffective teacher evaluations has culminated in a movement to revamp them. However, rethinking the way teachers are evaluated and receive feedback has proved to be more difficult than originally anticipated. As TNTP pointed out in their recent whitepaper, “Fixing Classroom Observations,” even in newly implemented evaluation systems, principals and others struggle to provide teachers actionable feedback, and new evaluations may not be aligned to the Common Core standards.

This past year we had the opportunity to support principals in Hillsborough County Public Schools and Syracuse City School District as they worked to better leverage teacher evaluation data to improve teacher practice. Principals in both districts developed new strategies to utilize the rich information produced by their evaluations to plan teacher-specific development across their schools.

That said, there are several promising new approaches to teacher evaluation, such as using multiple metrics, including student performance, to measure teacher performance; incorporating feedback from students, teachers, and peers in the evaluations; and maximizing principals’ time in classrooms to yield more frequent and less formal feedback conversations.

One tactic we’ve developed is similar to the one proposed by Adobe, replacing traditional performance reviews with short-cycle feedback loops. In this model, we propose that principals use trends identified in their evaluation results to identify two or three high-impact instructional strategies for all teachers to prioritize over the course of the school year.

Once teachers and principals have been trained on the use of the selected strategies, school teams could conduct “instructional rounds” in which they observe classrooms and measure adoption of the instructional strategies, provide immediate feedback to teachers, and adjust coaching and professional development accordingly. If the school teams include teachers in the school who have shown strengths in the priority areas, principals can leverage those teachers’ skills and reinforce efforts to build leadership in the school.

District administrators could bring principals together regularly to discuss the instructional round data, asking questions about barriers to implementation of the instructional strategies, highlighting schools that are “moving the needle,” and encouraging cross-school collaboration.

When we implemented a similar approach in some of the districts participating in the Kansas Learning Network, teachers and administrators agreed that instructional practices in those districts improved and student achievement increased.  For example, in Haysville, between 2009 and 2012, student proficiency increased in reading from 81.5% to 91.3% and in math from 76.6% to 88.7%.

The use of a collaborative-development strategy informed by teacher-evaluation data has the potential to pay big dividends for schools. With successful implementation, feedback for teachers and principals will be more meaningful and impactful, schools and districts will be able to focus primarily on instruction and continuous improvement, and the quality of instruction will greatly improve, resulting in significantly improved outcomes for students. Further, to the pleasure of teachers and principals alike, teacher evaluations will become something to look forward to and value as a critical piece in one’s career development.


Read more about partners Scott Joftus and Monica Rosen and the School, District, and State System Improvement and Human Capital Management practice areas.

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Author(s): Monica S. Rosen and Scott Joftus