Hiring and Retaining Great Independent School Teachers

Winter 2016

The positive impact of great teachers on student learning is undeniable. Independent schools pride themselves on providing a unique educational experience for students — one that is robust and mission-driven, tailored to low student-to-teacher ratios and more personalized learning with high-quality teachers.

While numerous studies measure teacher effectiveness in public schools, there is little research on teacher quality among independent schools. In fact, the topic of teacher quality in public schools receives widespread media coverage, funding, and special interest. In order to better understand how independent schools describe high-quality teachers and align practices to that description, we partnered with the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and conducted a mixed-method study on teacher quality in independent schools.

We designed a survey tool and queried independent school administrators (i.e., heads of school, division heads, assistant heads of school, and other “hiring administrators”) from the NAIS database. Our sample size of 755 educators was highly representative of the actual member demographics of NAIS-member schools. Additionally, we collected qualitative data from online focus groups, site visits, and in-person interviews and focus groups with school administrators and high-quality independent school teachers across the country.

Our research goal was to present a clearly articulated concept of high-quality teachers in independent schools as defined by various stakeholders. However, not wanting our research to linger in levels of abstraction, we also designed our study to be applicable to school leaders. Thus, we gathered data about actual school practices of teacher recruitment and selection, teacher evaluation practices, and teacher retention and recognition.

Extant research conducted in the Catholic school setting offers foundational understanding to interpret the results of our study, especially in the areas of relationship and culture. Human resource theories regarding hiring and recognition provide conceptualization of our findings around recruitment and selection. Issues connected to teacher evaluation are framed in the context of the recent findings from the Measures of Effective Teaching study.

Applying the description of high-quality teachers to issues of recruitment and selection as well as retention and recognition has far-reaching potential for increasing quality teachers, student learning, and the financial sustainability of independent schools. In our full report, we draw conclusions related to teacher quality as well as to practices of hiring and retention of high-quality teachers. Finally, we make recommendations for independent school leaders and suggest areas for further study.

In brief, this study finds that independent schools use four key characteristics to describe high-quality teachers. Independent schools value teachers who develop strong relationships with students, demonstrate strong pedagogical knowledge and content expertise, possess a growth mindset about their own capacity, and fit well within the school’s culture (see sidebar). Notably, commonly assessed characteristics of high-quality teachers in public school (certification, years of experience, and evidence of student growth) were the three lowest-rated variables among the independent school leaders who participated in our study.

Perhaps most meaningful for independent school administrators and teachers is that this study also examines school practices and finds that commonly used activities for recruitment and selection are intended to identify the key characteristics of high-quality teachers. Administrators use demonstration lessons and interviews purposefully in order to assess candidates’ abilities to develop strong relationships with students and their pedagogical knowledge and content expertise.

While the vast majority of independent school administrators use some methods of retention and recognition of high-quality teachers that directly reflect the valued characteristics of high-quality teachers, we find that practices related to teacher evaluation are inconsistent. For instance, our survey data revealed that 93 percent of independent schools employ a formal evaluation process, but 35 percent of independent schools evaluate teachers less than yearly. In particular, interview responses to questions of formal evaluation processes and effectiveness indicate that there are some discrepancies between administrators’ and teachers’ perspectives regarding the value of the evaluation system. Illustrative quotes from administrators and high-quality teachers from the same school often illustrated the differing opinions of teacher evaluation processes, even within the same school. An administrator commented, “[The formal evaluation process] has a profound impact on teacher quality that scaffolds over time.” While a teacher from the same school said, “For high-quality teachers, it [formal evaluation process] has no impact at all. Perhaps it gives administrators the ability to move out poor teachers.”

For some teachers, the evaluation process has a profound impact on teaching quality, with implications for compensation. For others, the process has moderate or no impact.

When describing the highest quality teachers at your school, rate the following: 



This study culminates with recommendations to both schools and NAIS, including the following:

  • Schools could do a better job of developing their own teachers through formal training and internship programs that connect aspiring teachers with established high-quality teachers.
  • School leaders need to operationalize the concepts of growth mindset, fit, and the ability to build relationships with students.
  • School leaders need to demonstrate their value of growth mindset in the practice of providing consistent and formative feedback to teachers.
  • NAIS should consider commissioning further empirical research in independent schools.

In general, independent schools will benefit from grounding their practice in research, aligning practice to the key attributes of high-quality teachers, and assessing their use of metrics.

The complete report can be found at www.nais.org.