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"Adapting to the Shortage: How Schools Are Rethinking Staffing Models"

Jeff Murray

5.2.2024





While it seems likely that the end of ESSER funding in September will engender a(nother) seismic shift in the school staffing conversation, education leaders are—for the moment—still talking about teacher shortages, long-term vacancies, hard-to-staff specialties, burnout, dissatisfaction, and attrition. On top of that, they seem interested in talking about how they’ve staffed their schools in light of these realities. A new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) synthesizes lessons learned from dozens of interviews of school leaders practicing what is termed “strategic staffing.”


At its base, “strategic staffing” is about moving away from the traditional one teacher, one classroom model and implementing strategies like establishing new pathways into the teaching profession, creating new structures for differentiated professional development and pay scales, and rethinking the daily work of teachers and support staff.


CRPE analysts interviewed forty-two leaders (principals, superintendents, etc.) and technical assistance providers working in six different school systems. All the systems are anonymous in this write-up and little description or differentiation is provided, except to say that the list includes both traditional districts and charter management organizations, and that some systems are in right-to-work states, while others are in collective-bargaining states. Interviewees were already well-versed in the tenets of strategic staffing, and were able to answer researchers’ questions regarding the origins and growth of their models, their implementation efforts, stakeholder support and opposition, barriers and enabling factors, and outcomes.


The analysis does not say when the interviews were conducted, though most leaders report that they’d been implementing strategic staffing for “more than three years” at the time of the interview. Several leaders report using federal Covid-relief funds to support their strategic efforts, though that’s not the only funding source noted, and there is no specific discussion of pandemic-era staffing. The overwhelming sense is that these new protocols for recruiting, deploying, supporting, and retaining talent are responses to persistent staffing concerns that predate the pandemic.


The report identifies seven strategies that two or more of the systems have implemented. The most common are creating new teacher leadership roles (which enable teachers to advance in their careers without leaving instruction) and personalized teacher development (defined as providing opportunities that support leadership development as well as teachers’ daily work and personal growth). Other common strategies were redesigned schedules and workloads, broadened recruitment programs, and additional compensation for staffers who take on additional responsibilities or exhibit strong performance. Every system covered in the report was implementing at least three non-traditional staffing strategies, with one system reporting five simultaneous efforts. Leaders explained in their interviews that they believed no one strategy by itself would adequately move the needle on staffing concerns, and that they were working to implement everything they could.


The bulk of the CRPE report discusses challenges, both big and small, that leaders faced in their efforts to make changes. The most frequently-cited—and most difficult to overcome—emerge from the codified aspects of traditional education models. For example, teacher licensure requirements limit who can be recruited to teach and which classes/subjects can be covered by any given teacher; class size requirements complicate team teaching efforts; state-mandated pay scales often forbid bonuses to incentivize teachers to take on new/additional roles; and collective bargaining agreements contain myriad ironclad clauses and requirements based on the oldest of old-school teaching models.


Some leaders, however, offered anecdotes of hope. For example, one system found that union leaders were willing to be more flexible than expected in their interpretation of contract terms, and another discovered that a longstanding district “policy” regularly cited as the reason they couldn’t hire part-time paraprofessionals didn’t even exist! But these fortuitous outcomes weren’t the norm. Policies and prohibitions that looked like roadblocks to change generally were just that.

Leaders also reported another category of potential barriers that were ultimately more permeable. These include inflexible data systems that, in one example, only track student outcome data (attendance, test scores, discipline, etc.) for a single-teacher classroom structure; creating a master schedule for all teachers and support personnel to accommodate new forms of collaboration; HR and other central office staff resistant to changes in recruiting, hiring, and training of teachers; and school-level processes, such as how students are assigned to teachers at the beginning of the grading period, semester, or year. These, leaders say, can be overcome with enough effort and buy-in from staff.


In the end, this report is more about starting points than results. For example, the authors write: “Because of sampling limitations and our reliance on leaders’ recollections and self-reports, the findings do not represent the full breadth of leaders’ experiences, nor the chances that other leaders may encounter similar experiences.” Translation: School systems—while often bound by similar rules, traditions, and norms—are staffed by individuals whose devotion to those strictures can vary widely. “Further,” the authors add, “we do not claim a causal relationship between the strategic school staffing initiatives and the leaders’ reported efficacy.” This is an important caveat because there is really no efficacy information provided at all. Did these six school systems fully solve their staffing issues with what often sound like Herculean (and sometimes Sisyphean) efforts? No idea. And even if they did, how are their students faring in the wake of the changes they were able to make? Again, no clue. It makes sense to think that schools and their students in 2024 might benefit from a refresh of the staffing style of the previous hundred years. But this report is more about compiling a roster of possible ideas than proving their effectiveness.


SOURCE: Lisa Chu, Lydia Rainey, and Steven Weiner, “‘So hard, but so rewarding’: How school system leaders are scaling up strategic school staffing models,” Center on Reinventing Public Education (March 2024).

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