My View

Reaping Top Talent With a Data Harvest
By NICHOLAS L. PELZER/School Administrator, June 2018

DATA ARE SEXY. You might not think so, but I do. That’s because I’ve seen the power of data to aid school districts with one of their most daunting tasks: ensuring an effective principal leads every school.

I help to manage The Wallace Foundation’s Principal Pipeline Initiative, which is supporting six large school districts as they work to shape a large corps of high-quality school leaders. Each district has created a data system to strategically manage the flow of talent into the principalship.

The systems collect and store data on individual schools — climate and student achievement, for example — as well as the training, qualifications, performance and demographics of principals and aspiring principals. The districts (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Denver, Colo.; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; New York City; and Prince George’s County, Md.) slice and dice the data for various local needs, from projecting principal vacancies to examining workforce diversity and analyzing school performance trends.

A Hiring Edge
All six districts have one thing in common: They use data to improve hiring. Administrators tell us their candidate selection and matching tools have enhanced the consistency, fairness and quality of talent management. According to a 2017 report, “Leader Tracking Systems: Turning Data into Information for School Leadership” by Policy Studies Associates, the systems have proved their mettle in three ways:

» Allowing an apples-to-apples comparison of candidates.
Earlier in my career, I agonized over the appearance of my résumé. Was it clear? Was I using the right font? Did it pop? I did this because I’d read that the average recruiter looks at a résumé for mere seconds before deciding whether to follow up with a candidate or take a pass.

For school district administrators who sometimes must wade through hundreds of résumés to fill one vacancy, a well-crafted résumé from a weaker applicant could overshadow a bland résumé from a stronger one.

Data systems can lessen the bias by gathering and displaying information about a candidate’s experience and qualifications in a standard, easy-to-read format — what one district calls the “baseball card.”

» Making searches more efficient.
By using the systems’ filtering functions to zero in on the qualities schools need in their next principal — say, experience working in turnaround schools or with English language learners — districts now can shrink their pools of job candidates to a manageable size.

» Reducing the power of whom you know.
When filling a vacancy, it’s not uncommon for administrators to first consider someone they know well or who is next in line regardless of the candidate’s fit with the school. Having comprehensive data on all aspiring leaders can weaken this tendency and promote better matches.

Administrators also can seek out untapped talent and invite applications from qualified people who previously had gone unnoticed. Take the hiring official who fired up the system and discovered a candidate she’d never heard of before but whose qualifications fit the bill. “It was the first time I put all my confidence in the placement tool,” the administrator told the researchers, “and she has been a tremendous success.”

Modest Beginnings
All this adds up to a system that can surface the strongest candidates despite résumé flair, personal connections or other factors with little bearing on leadership potential.

None of this means setting up a system is simple. Most districts are swimming in data — often stored in multiple places and used for isolated functions. It takes time and patience to gather, organize and automate the information. Also, no matter how sophisticated, data systems only inform hiring; they don’t lead it. After all, people are more than their data, and nothing can replace the human touch.

If you’re thinking about building a system, let me offer a few tips. First, dream big, but work in stages, starting with the data you have. Focus on a specific purpose. Whose life will the system make easier? Finally, form a cross-functional team (HR, IT, etc.) with a leader who will drive the work.

If you need some inspiration, I can think of six great districts to visit. Tell them Nick sent you.

NICHOLAS PELZER is a senior program officer in the education leadership unit of The Wallace Foundation in New York, N.Y. Twitter: @WallaceFdn