September 17, 2009

YES Prep: Getting the Right People

This case study explores the “nuts and bolts” of how YES Prep Public Schools, a charter organization based in Houston, Texas, succeeds in preparing low-income students not only to graduate from high school, but also to enter college ready to meet the challenges of a post-secondary education.

To get a great teacher in every classroom, we have to make an investment in going out and finding people with the raw skills, the intelligence, the passion, and the ability to connect with kids, and then we have to develop a program to develop those people into great teachers. (Chris Barbic, Founder and Head of Schools)

There is much discussion in education circles about the difficulty of predicting success in new recruits to the teaching profession. Author Malcolm Gladwell recently argued, “After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like.” [1]  YES Prep is figuring out the ingredients that predict classroom success. The organization has achieved remarkable student gains with a teacher force that averages 1.8 years of teaching experience and where, in any given year, over 30 percent of teachers are in their first year in the profession. For example, despite the fact that most students enter YES Prep at least one grade level behind in reading and math, 93 percent of 6th graders in YES Prep schools met standards on the 2008 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills reading and math tests, compared to 73 percent for Houston Independent School District. YES Prep's 10th graders proved that those gains are sustainable, with 90 percent of students meeting standards on both tests, compared with just 46 percent in Houston and a statewide average of 55 percent.

How does YES Prep do this?  By figuring out what characteristics define success in the classroom and then rigorously testing for those characteristics during the recruiting process. Importantly, the organization has found that classroom success is less about “technical” skills than about a set of personality traits: 

  • Ability to rebound quickly – able to quickly fix problems and always keep moving forward
  • Consistently in high energy mode – able to keep up with a pace that most others would find exhausting
  • Eagerness to take charge – ready to proactively tackle barriers to success
  • Willingness to deal with conflict head-on – not afraid to question and push to find the best solutions for teachers and students
  • Outspoken – eager to share opinions, provide feedback and push for new ideas
  • Perfectionist – strong orientation to getting it just right for students; not happy with “good enough”
  • Driven – willing to do whatever it takes to help students reach their goals

First and foremost, the organization's recruiting seeks out talented people and isn’t restricted to “traditional” sources of teaching talent. In fact, less than 30 percent of YES Prep teachers have an education degree. The YES Prep recruitment video points to the value proposition the organization offers candidates. As one teacher explained simply, “Great people want to work with great people,” so YES Prep’s approach emphasizes the organizational culture and shared values of excellence. Second, teacher selection is tough and tightly structured. All candidates must teach a lesson and are subject to a battery of interviews and tests as part of the process. The ultimate decision on whether to hire a teacher is vested with the school director, not a central body. This creates a clear accountability for the decisions and a sense of ownership among school leadership for the success of each teacher in their school. 

Next: Teaching Excellence >> 

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, “Most likely to succeed: How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?” The New Yorker, December 15, 2008.

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