WILLIAM THOMAS, THE headmaster at Charlestown High School, got to do something new this spring: He posted his job openings for next year and personally selected the teachers to fill them. The power to build his own team didn’t receive a lot of attention locally, but it was a revolutionary moment for the Boston Public Schools, where union rules have hindered the ability of school principals to build their own staffs.

The 42-year-old Thomas says the old way of hiring typically narrowed his choices to just three candidates forwarded to him by the school system’s central office. The three would usually be drawn, based on seniority, from a pool of tenured Boston Public School teachers looking for new positions. For principals, it was a little like rolling the dice. Sometimes the teacher that landed the job would fit in at the school and work out well. But Thomas, and just about every other principal in the Boston Public Schools, has horror stories about the teachers that didn’t work out.

“I’d get people who didn’t want to be here and didn’t want the position they were offered,” says Thomas. “It’s the old pattern of the dance of the lemons.”

Teachers are almost universally recognized as the single, most important factor in improving student performance, particularly in urban school districts serving poor and minority students. But getting the best possible teacher in every classroom is one of the biggest challenges facing American educators. Between tenure and seniority, many principals say their hands are tied.

One approach to the problem has been the end run, creating a new breed of school (charters, innovation schools, turnaround schools are just some of the names) where principals are freed from union constraints and given hiring and budget autonomy. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program used federal funds as a carrot to entice states to lift caps on charter schools and to conduct annual performance evaluations of teachers and administrators. Some states and municipalities have gone further, rolling back seniority rules, passing mutual consent hiring laws, and implementing merit pay for teachers.

Ross Wilson, an assistant superintendent in charge of human capital, uses a
sports analogy to make the case for hiring autonomy. “We’d never tell coaches
they can’t assemble their own team, so we shouldn’t tell principals that.”

In June, a California judge garnered headlines across the country when he ruled that five state laws dealing with teacher tenure and seniority violated the constitutional rights of students by saddling their schools with what the judge called “grossly ineffective teachers.” In his opinion, Judge Rolf Treu cited research suggesting a single year in a classroom with a grossly ineffective teacher would cost the students in the classroom $1.4 million in lifetime earnings. He also cited a study indicating students taught by a poor teacher lose 9.5 months of learning in a single year compared to students with average teachers. “The evidence is compelling,” Treu wrote. “Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

Most people in Boston would be surprised to hear that the Boston Public Schools are on the cutting edge of the hiring autonomy issue because it has received so little attention. John McDonough, the soft-spoken but steely-eyed 62-year-old interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, is exploiting what is being described as a loophole in the teacher’s contract to push ahead with a $30 million plan to give all principals the power to hire whomever they want and the tools to remove underperformers.

He’s got pro-union Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on board as well as a host of foundations and corporate executives interested in ponying up private money to give every principal at every school in the district the power to hire their own team. It doesn’t sound like much—hiring the best people you can find—but, in the risk-averse world of school bureaucracies and teachers unions, it’s what McDonough calls “transformative.”

Even more amazing is how McDonough and Ross Wilson, the superintendent’s point man on hiring autonomy, have pulled it off. The Boston Teachers Union is opposing the loophole initiative, but there’s been none of the blood-letting that’s occurred in other urban school districts. McDonough and Wilson aren’t bashing the teachers union or trying to do away with seniority and tenure. Instead, the two school officials keep emphasizing their desire for a great teacher in every classroom and they talk a lot about fairness. If charter school operators or schools taken over by the state can hire the teachers they want, why not principals at regular schools? Why should they wait?

“I equate it to the NBA or the NFL,” says Wilson. “We’d never tell coaches they can’t assemble their own team, so we shouldn’t tell principals that. If you had a choice between a No. 1 draft choice and a No. 26 choice, which would you choose?”

Numbers look good

Hiring autonomy in the Boston Public Schools is off to a strong start. There is more competition for jobs, positions are being filled more quickly, the number of minority hires is increasing, and the hiring system overall is far more transparent. The numbers look very good, but that’s partly because they were so bad before.
Most people in Boston would be surprised to hear that the schools are on the cutting edge of the hiring autonomy issue.
The hiring system revolves around a Rube Goldberg machine called the excess pool. The excess pool is the place where tenured teachers without positions park themselves while they look for a new job. All sorts of teachers end up in the excess pool. Some are there because their job at a particular school gets eliminated. Others end up there because their school is taken over by the state or a charter operator that wants to bring in their own people. Still others are returning from leaves of absence or just simply looking to move from their current job to a different job.

Lack of choice was the problem with the old hiring system. A principal would post a job opening; if teachers in the excess pool were interested in the job, they would apply for it. The names of the three teachers with the most seniority would be forwarded along to the principal, who would rank them and then wait for the central office to make the final decision. Mary Driscoll, a principal at the Thomas Edison School in Brighton, says one teacher came to her out of the excess pool who showed up for work unprepared to deal with students with emotional behavior disabilities. Driscoll says the teacher ended up going out on disability and had to be replaced by a substitute for the entire year. Driscoll says that bad experience made her wary of dealing with the excess pool in the future.

That wariness is pervasive among principals. It became so bad that the principals would plot and scheme to avoid getting stuck with teachers out of the excess pool. Thomas, the principal at Charlestown High, says he would ask teachers who were preparing to retire to put off their announcement until late in the summer when the excess pool was nearly empty. If no one is in the pool, a principal is free to hire anyone. Other principals say they would make job openings sound as unattractive as possible to discourage applicants from the excess pool.

The excess pool also caused headaches for nontenured teachers, those with less than three years on the job. If someone in the excess pool was unable to find a position, they had the option of bumping out and replacing a nontenured teacher. The bumping would often take place toward the end of the summer, which meant young teachers couldn’t rest easy about their jobs until school actually started. Many would seek a job in another school district rather than run the risk of getting bumped out of Boston at the last minute. School officials estimate they could have lost as many as 300 nontenured teachers this year if hiring autonomy had not been in place.

All this maneuvering and gamesmanship around hiring resulted in enormous delays. Prior to the start of the 2013-14 school year, officials say 64 percent of all teacher hires were completed in August and September; another 28 percent wrapped in July. That meant more than 90 percent of all teacher hires took place in the summer, long after most other school systems had finished their hiring and grabbed the best candidates. The timing also meant principals couldn’t observe job candidates in classroom situations and most teachers couldn’t prepare for the coming school year over the summer.

The new hiring system ends all the subterfuge. Any job that becomes available is posted and anyone can apply for it. Principals are required to interview applicants from the excess pool and a representative sample of minority teachers, but they can interview as many other candidates as they want and select the teacher they prefer.

“You’re able to create your own team. It’s more competitive. You can be picky about who you put in,” says Thomas, who keeps a tchotchke on his bookshelf that says “Teachers save the world one child at a time.”

Principals say they are no longer reticent about looking at candidates from the excess pool because they now have a choice in who they select. Indeed, a number of teachers at the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, a school being taken over by the state, went into the excess pool this spring and were quickly gobbled up by other schools. Driscoll at the Edison took two. Nontenured teachers are also feeling less stressed because they are now on equal footing in applying for jobs with tenured teachers.

With all the gamesmanship gone, the hiring clock moved forward dramatically this year. Nearly four-fifths of the 1,010 open postings were filled by the end of the school year, a dramatic reversal of what had occurred in past years. School officials say they are also hiring a greater percentage of African American and Hispanic teachers.
The BPS used to hire most of its teachers during the summer. Now most are hired in the spring when the best applicants are available.
The biggest challenge for principals has been finding the time to interview applicants and to observe finalists in classroom situations. More than 4,000 interviews have been conducted so far. Principals, usually working with existing teachers at their schools, have squeezed in the interviews on weekends and at night. Thomas says the number of interviews he conducted varied from a high of 147 for a history job to a low of 17 for a physics post. He averaged 46 interviews per position.

“It’s a lot more work,” he says, “but in the long run it will be a lot less work because you get the best qualified person and they’ll be more likely to stay at the school for a long time.”

Human capital strategy

As Mayor Marty Walsh and top school officials make their financial pitch on behalf of hiring autonomy before foundation boards and corporate executives, they don’t play up the fact that the centerpiece of the $30 million initiative is based on a contract loophole that is being grieved by the Boston Teachers Union.

The contract allows school officials to open post a job, meaning they can hire anyone they want, if they pay a one-time $1,250 stipend to the person selected. Officials say the provision was originally included in the contract to attract educators teaching certain types of math and science courses for which candidates can be scarce. McDonough, who previously served as the system’s chief financial officer, is using the provision to open post every position this year. The stipend cost for traditional schools is nearly $600,000. The union has filed a grievance to block the district’s use of the stipend for every hire.

McDonough isn’t waiting for the grievance decision. He’s giving principals hiring autonomy now and pushing ahead with what is being described as a broader “human capital strategy to attract, support, retain, and grow effective teachers, while also using rigorous performance evaluation to exit underperforming educators from our system.”

The city is budgeting $6 million for the three-year initiative and counting on foundation and corporate support for another $25 million. The budget for the initiative calls for spending $3.5 million to conduct evaluations to identify and remove poor performing teachers from classrooms. Under a heading entitled “Why Boston? Why now?” school officials make their pitch: “The Boston Public Schools is prepared to succeed where other large, urban school districts have failed. Mayor Marty Walsh is prepared to show impact on education in his first year.”

Walsh pitched the initiative to the Gates Foundation in Washington and made another presentation to potential donors in June in Boston at a Bank of America event hosted by Peter and Carolyn Lynch (who have already donated $1 million), BOA Massachusetts President Bob Gallery, and Paul Grogan of The Boston Foundation. “There’s a lot of interest,” says Walsh. “I’m very invested.”

Chris Gabrieli, who advocates for a longer school day at Mass2020, says the presentation by school officials is very good. “What’s impressive is its sweep,” he says. “It’s not a pilot project. The fact that they are doing this at every school is incredible.”

Katie Everett, executive director of the Lynch Foundation, says she believes the foundation community is excited about what’s happening in Boston because of its great potential. “You’ve got to prove that if you change your teaching hiring practices and evaluation procedures and provide a quality teacher in every classroom, you will change the entire school system,” she says.

Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Cage Busting Leadership, says what McDonough is doing in Boston is what superintendents and principals should be doing across the country. Instead of whining about how union rules make reform so difficult, he says superintendents should take the tools they already have and use them to push the envelope for change.

“Unions tend to claim the world when reading a contract and superintendents usually give in,” he says. “In fact, the superintendents should be claiming the world when they read the contract.”

But what happens if the union wins the grievance? Wilson looks sternly at me and says that’s not going to happen. “I’m comfortable that you hire all these people, we’re not going to undo this,” he said. “The grievance will not blow this up.”

Excess teachers

The one thing Boston school officials don’t like talking about is the tenured teachers expected to be left stranded, unhired, at the start of the coming school year. School officials estimate the number will be somewhere between 75 and 150. Richard Stutman, the head of the Boston Teachers Union, thinks the number will be 125. Based on the average Boston teacher salary of $88,000, that works out to $11 million being paid to teachers who won’t be teaching.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says people in organized labor have to adapt.

McDonough says these excess teachers will be put to work in “suitable professional positions.” There has been talk they could be used as long-term substitutes, tutors, or teacher assistants. The superintendent describes the excess teachers as “one of the costs of change at this time.”

Stutman declined comment but referred a reporter to a blog post that suggests the teachers are being treated shabbily. “All are permanent and have been vetted throughout their careers by BPS administrators,” he says in the blog post on the union’s website. “All have continually undergone thorough performance evaluation reviews, and yet, four months into this new process, they await job offers for next year. Some even await their first interview.”

Wilson, the assistant superintendent, expects the number of excess teachers to drop steadily and disappear over the next three years as teachers are absorbed into the system or removed via the performance evaluation process. “The system has to get better. The number has to go down year after year,” he says. “This is a transition cost. We’re going to deal with it.”

The proportion of excess teachers in Boston is about the same as the estimate of grossly incompetent teachers in the California court decision on seniority and tenure. In the California decision, Judge Treu said evidence presented at the trial indicated 1 to 3 percent of the state’s teachers were “grossly ineffective.” The estimate of excess teachers in Boston during the coming school year is 75 to 150, or 1.7 percent to 3.5 percent of the district’s 4,300 teachers.

The big difference is that McDonough and Wilson have never suggested that tenured teachers who are not selected for positions during the open posting process are bad teachers. “We call them excess teachers who haven’t received positions yet,” says Wilson.
Superintendent McDonough says the 75 to 150 excess BPS teachers without jobs will be put to work in “suitable positions.”
When a recent CommonWealth story referred to the excess teachers in a headline as ”leftover teachers,” McDonough and Stutman sent a letter to the magazine expressing great umbrage. “Every teacher has the potential to be great—even those who are not selected this spring—and the BPS and BTU are committed to supporting them and working with them in the year ahead,” they wrote.

Wilson says the funds raised privately for the school department’s human capital initiative will not be used to pay the salaries of the excess teachers, but McDonough and many of those who have listened to the school district’s fundraising pitch are more equivocal.

Mayor Walsh, who headed the Boston Building Trades union group before running for office, doesn’t appear to be troubled by the situation. “My job as the mayor of Boston is to get the best quality education I can for the children of the city of Boston,” he says.

Walsh says he has not personally reached out to Stutman to talk with him about the situation, but he insists the union is excited about the initiative. When asked what he means by that, Walsh says teachers want a better school system and he is convinced hiring autonomy will produce a better school system.

“Every so often it’s good to mix things up,” the mayor says. “No profession is the same as it was 50 years ago. People in organized labor have to adapt.”