Hired and Fired
Does MCPS do a good job recruiting new teachers and getting rid of bad ones?
The anxious lined up in front of a small table in cavernous Frank Acierno Arena at the University of Delaware. Those there first spent 30 minutes with Rae Korade or Linda Johnson, two Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) recruiters who each had time to interview just eight candidates during April’s daylong job fair. Scores of school systems from Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic states were there searching for the best and the brightest teacher candidates.
Those unable to score an interview with the MCPS recruiters dropped résumés in a basket on the Montgomery system’s table and hoped that theirs would somehow rise to the top. All would be scanned and reviewed. After additional screening by the school system’s human resources office, the names of the most promising candidates would be forwarded to principals at schools with vacancies for another interview—and the possibility of an offer to teach in the county’s vaunted school system.
These fresh-faced hopefuls in Delaware, almost all of them women, had been lured by MCPS’ reputation, starting salaries that range from $46,410 to $78,061 (depending on whether the teacher has advanced degrees), great benefits, even better prospects for future earnings, tuition reimbursements, additional stipends, and the appeal of living and working near the nation’s capital.
Most years, MCPS recruiters travel widely in search of the best teachers, individuals they refer to as “highfliers,” those who can engage students, control their classrooms and teach children with widely differing needs and abilities. In their hunt for teachers for this school year, the 10 recruiters traveled less because of budget cuts. They took 31 trips compared with 57 in 2008, mostly to campuses in Maryland and Pennsylvania—and relied more on interviews conducted by Web cam. The economy also had an impact on the number of available slots—400 to 500—for the 2009-10 school year compared with 778 last year and 880 the year before.
At the start of the summer, hiring was still a work in progress, as those already in the system had first crack at any openings. From November 2008 through late June, 6,724 outside candidates had applied, resulting in 1,274 interviews. Only 103 had been hired, none from the University of Delaware. “We don’t have to beat the bushes,” says Brian K. Edwards, chief of staff to Superintendent of Schools Jerry D. Weast.
“We’ve got a good brand and a good reputation,” says Weast, “and therefore we are able to attract a real large qualified candidate pool.” The challenge, he says, is matching the right candidates with the available jobs.
Those hired after being interviewed by their principal are funneled into a formal “professional growth system” adopted by the county nearly a decade ago. It provides “consulting teachers” to all probationary teachers and also to tenured teachers who have been rated as “under-performing” by their principals. The so-called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) process is not unique to Montgomery County, but outside experts say it has been developed to a high art here, helping struggling teachers become better and weeding out those whose game, despite the extra coaching, remains sub par.
Experts agree that a teacher can make or break a student’s attitude and desire to achieve, inspiring a love of learning along with the mastery of knowledge, or turning the academic years into a nightmare of poor performance and disdain for academics. Despite the teacher’s central role in whether kids succeed or fail, little is known outside the system about how teachers are hired or fired. Does the MCPS recruiting and hiring process bring the best young teachers to its classrooms? Does the professional growth system ensure the best teachers for Montgomery County’s 139,000 public school children? Does it rid the county of the worst? An examination by Bethesda Magazine, which included dozens of interviews with principals, teachers, parents and outside experts, reveals a highly structured system that gets mostly good marks for recruiting and supporting educators, and firing teachers who don’t measure up.
Attracting New Teachers
By most measures, MCPS ranks among the best public school systems in the country, even as its student population is becoming more ethnically and economically diverse. Students hail from 164 countries and speak 134 languages. The system’s high school graduation rate—81 percent—is tied with a suburban Houston district for highest among the country’s 50 largest school districts, according to a survey by Education Week. Four of the county’s 26 high schools were listed among the nation’s top 100 schools as ranked in Newsweek’s 2009 Challenge Index. Indeed, the available statistics suggest that the county’s 11,544 teachers—or at least a vast majority of them—must
be doing something right in the system’s 200 schools.
“It is a well-run school system. The majority of recruitment and hiring is done efficiently and in a timely way,” says Thomas Toch, co-founder of Education Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based education policy think tank. MCPS is “considered to be an affluent suburban school district in a major urban area, and that’s attractive to people. So you’re going to attract more well-educated people than if you are in rural Oklahoma.”
Adds Toch: “[To] the extent principals are brought into the process and allowed to interview teachers, you end up getting better matches.”
“If you are a highflier with an outstanding GPA and references, we’ll hire you for the system as soon as the number of vacancies becomes known, under a so-called ‘open contract,’” says Jane L. Woodburn, the MCPS director of recruitment and staffing. After a period when current teachers can change schools, creating or filling openings, the open contract candidates are assigned to schools. Candidates are ranked by more than education, certification and student teaching references.
“We try to ask questions that get at a teacher’s core values and their beliefs in children,” says Susan Marks, associate superintendent for human resources. “So we set up scenarios: ‘How would you ensure students are engaged?’ ‘What would you do if a child doesn’t get what you’re teaching?’ We ask about their commitment to diversity and the way they differentiate within the classroom.With lots of different kinds of learners, how [do] they ensure that all students have access to a regular or accelerated curriculum? How do they use test data to make decisions about their lesson planning? How well do they collaborate with their colleagues?”
Admittedly, some candidates who interview well could be poor teachers, Woodburn says. But, “when asked to respond to problem-solving situations,” she says, “it takes more than charisma to pull it off.” The system relies largely, Woodburn says, on its recruiters, who have had track records as successful classroom teachers. The large pool of applicants, she says, also results in “the greater the chances of hiring a larger group of top candidates.”
The vetting does not include teaching a demonstration lesson. “Unfortunately, because of the high numbers of teachers we hire, we are unable to observe a teacher teaching a class,” Woodburn says. However, she says, MCPS is exploring the possibility of having applicants e-mail videos of their student teaching.
New teachers are put on probation, but they get a lot of support to survive the challenging first year, including a school mentor and a consulting teacher. The new hires are automatically enrolled in PAR and given up to three years to make the grade or be let go. Under PAR, teachers must adhere to six standards. They must be committed to teaching their students and must know their subjects and how to teach them. They must be able to maintain classroom control “in a positive environment.” They must continually assess student progress, analyze results and adapt instruction to improve achievement. They must exhibit a high degree of professionalism and take “professional development” courses. Since 2001, 172 new teachers have washed out in their first year, about 3 percent of the approximately 6,000 new hires. Consulting teachers give assistance to new and underperforming teachers through observing their classrooms and providing feedback. The job of a consulting teacher is full time, and “CTs” must have at least five years of teaching experience. They are considered essential to the PAR process for both new and tenured teachers who require help, but the number of CTs has dropped with budget cuts from 44 in 2007-08 to 36 in 2008-09 to 28 for the 2009-10 school year.
According to Robert J. Mathis, head of the social studies department at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, new teachers are better prepared in many ways than his generation of teachers was. But they still need guidance. “It used to be, it was implied you’d get help, but there was no articulated method,” he says. “Today, the expectations are very high. There’s a lot of accountability. It’s almost overwhelming if you don’t have that support. If you’re not prepared, those kids will eat you alive. You’ve got to be at the top of your game.”
Given the pressures, it’s not surprising that 35 percent of new MCPS teachers leave within their first five years for a host of reasons. Nationally, the figure is higher—more than 50 percent, according to national surveys.
“No medical school graduate does brain surgery on day one, but first-year teachers are put in the classroom and expected to teach,” says Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), the teachers’ union. Many of the system’s young teachers—140 in the last two school years—come from Pennsylvania, where teaching jobs are in short supply but teaching degrees are not, recruiting officials say. Once here, some get sticker shock and leave. “They think they’ve died and gone to heaven until they can’t afford to live here,” Israel says. “Then, they’d rather go back to nice towns in Pennsylvania.”