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Tulsa Public Schools: The Rocky Balboa of Teacher Hiring

This article orginally appeared in the TNTP Blog

A month ago, we shared how San Francisco managed to buck the trend of districts across the country struggling to hire enough teachers. Today, we have another story of a district that did the same, but in the face of even tougher odds: Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) managed to double the number of applications they received for their teaching positions this year, and ultimately open the school year with zero vacancies.

Attracting great teachers to TPS has historically been a tough sell. The district can’t afford to offer competitive salaries—in fact, they are $5,000 below the national average. As a result, the district has struggled year after year to hire enough teachers, with some 50 teaching positions typically open at the start of the school year (and 78 last year).

So how did they close that gap?  

Last summer, Deborah A. Gist, the district’s newly-appointed superintendent, made a commitment to turn the hiring tide. Across the district, multiple departments banded together to make filling every teaching vacancy a top priority.

They started by prioritizing early hiring. Research shows that school districts that hire teachers earlier are better able to attract strong candidates. In previous years, TPS started recruitment in the spring. This year, they partnered with TNTP to develop a plan to start hiring teachers earlier. By the end of June, the district had received roughly as many applications as there had been in the entire 2014 hiring season, and TPS more than doubled the number of hires it had made at that point the year before.

TPS made critical improvements to their hiring process to improve its overall efficiency. They switched to a new applicant tracking system that resulted in a much more user friendly system for applicants, school leaders, and administrative staff. They also set up infrastructure for centralized hiring so that high-priority candidates were hired into a pool (without specific school assignments) before they could receive offers from other districts. Once they were hired, these top candidates were able to interview with district principals to find the best match. As a result, principal satisfaction with both the quantity and quality of applicants has doubled from where it was a year ago.

But beyond better policies and hiring systems, there was the team effort. Superintendent Gist met regularly with district leadership to keep track of the district’s hiring progress, and her cabinet worked closely with the human capital team in order to help make connections between departments to support hiring efforts. For instance, the finance department released discretionary and Title 1 allocations earlier than ever before—a big reason why school leaders were able to fill positions sooner. This kind of collaboration across departments was a marked shift in district culture at TPS.

Despite their success this year, Superintendent Gist and other leaders at TPS know that this accomplishment will be difficult to replicate without changes that will address their pipeline challenges—in particular, below-average salaries and an increased reliance on emergency certifications to fill teacher vacancies.

That’s why the district is taking several steps to ensure a more robust teacher pipeline in the years to come. These include connecting with local universities to establish strategic relationships and identify potential candidates; looking into reasons why top performing teachers leave TPS and improving strategies for retaining them; and creating pipelines of their own—like an alternative certification program—that would create sustainable new sources of teacher talent. Their efforts are also receiving a boost from leaders in the state calling for voters to agree to a one cent sales tax increase that could provide a $5,000 per-year raise for teachers, as well as funds for further education investments.

There’s plenty of work still to be done to ensure that Tulsa’s students have access to great teachers year after year—and that Tulsa’s teachers can build sustainable careers in the district. But TPS is a district worth watching for their creativity and tenacity as they work on creating the changes necessary to make great classrooms staffed with great teachers a sustainable reality. 


Tulsa Public Schools: The Rocky Balboa of Teacher Hiring
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