As school leaders struggle to find enough highly qualified educators to staff the nation’s classrooms, a growing number of districts have been turning to the web in hopes of corralling new employees. Now, one North Carolina school system is among the first in the country to adopt a practice that already is catching on in the corporate world: using online exams to screen and assess potential candidates.

Beginning June 1, the Wake County Public School System–the second largest school district in North Carolina, serving more than 104,000 students–will require anyone who applies for a job as a teacher or school principal to take a multiple-choice test online. The exam asks a series of questions intended to highlight certain personality traits and assess how candidates might respond in different situations.

Back in February, Wake County tapped Pennsylvania-based Kenexa, a provider of human-resources services and web-based hiring solutions to Fortune 500 companies, to lend a touch of corporate efficiency to the school system’s slow-moving hiring process.

The district, which has 127 schools and employs more than 7,500 teachers, approached Kenexa with two goals in mind: (a) implementing an automated system that would help hiring managers sift through the tremendous influx of paper-based and electronic resumes received from potential job applicants and (b) creating a selection process that would enable administrators to identify the brightest, best-prepared, and most talented prospects in the application pool.

“With the ongoing shortage of teachers, it has become difficult to both hire and retain the right teachers,” said Toni Patterson, assistant superintendent for the district.

The challenge isn’t unique to Wake County. Nationwide, school systems are reeling from a worsening teacher crunch. Owing to a current crop of aging educators and a continually shrinking pool of college graduates interested in entering the teaching ranks, experts have estimated a need for more than 2 million additional teachers to staff the nation’s classrooms over the next 10 years–a problem that has recently been compounded by stricter high-quality teacher provisions ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law requires all states to retain certified teachers in every core subject area, from math and science to language arts, by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

But it isn’t just about recruiting good teachers. The real challenge these days lies in matching the right applicant with the right job, Patterson said. The more comfortable an employee is in his or her position, the more likely he or she is to stick around.

To improve system-wide retention, Wake County will administer two customized online assessments–one for prospective teachers and another for administrators–which should take job-seekers about 20 minutes to complete through a service hosted for the district on Kenexa’s web site.

In formulating the assessments, Kenexa human-resource consultants interviewed top district administrators to get a sense for what skills and personalities have elicited the most success among district employees.

“By matching the right applicant to the right job, we’ll increase the probability of [employee] success and increase retention in the school district,” Patterson said.

The list of questions used as examples during the test period included asking applicants how they would react if they suspected a student of being intoxicated at a school function, or what they would do if a school board member asked them to discuss the educational progress of someone else’s child. Applicants also were asked to describe what they enjoyed about working with children and to give their opinions on equal education.

In peak season, Wake County receives as many as 150 applications a day from job-seekers looking to join what has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing school systems.

“We spend a lot of time just wading through papers,” Patterson said. “The volume of work is significant.”

By bringing the system online, she hopes the district will have a better shot at acting quickly to nab top talent.

“This will allow us to recognize [highly qualified teachers] and follow up with them immediately,” she said.

That’s not to say the automated process eventually will replace the need for in-person interviews.

“Putting [the application] on the web is really the easy part,” said Ame Creglow, director of assessment operations at Kenexa. The hard part, she added, lies in developing a unique “success portfolio” that can assess whether a given applicant is likely to thrive in the existing environment.

Although some applicants often look good on paper–boasting diplomas and accreditations from top-flight schools–not all of them exhibit the kinds of behaviors and attitudes likely to gel with existing staff and students, Creglow said.

To help hiring mangers get a better sense for how well each applicant is likely to fit in, Kenexa worked with district officials to develop a set of questions administrators could ask potential employees during face-to-face interviews. Candidates for in-person interviews are selected based on their overall qualifications and their individual performance ratings on Kenexa’s online assessments.

Creglow said she hopes the new system will enable the district to improve its hiring processes by expanding the overall pool of applicants to job seekers across the internet and by allowing school officials to contact immediately those candidates who demonstrate the skills and qualities necessary to achieve long-lasting success within the school system.

“You really get some in-depth information about [candidates] … before they ever start working in the building,” Creglow said of process. “Retention comes from finding out about the applicant–that personal information that allows you to know and support [him or her].”

In the private sector, Creglow said, the Kenexa system averages 14 days from the point of application to hire. Although Wake County is the only school district in the nation to have used the model, she said, the average hire in the public sector so far is closer to 30 days. She attributed the increase in time to additional hurdles related to state certification discrepancies, background checks, and other administrative roadblocks not commonly encountered in the business world.

Depending on the size of the district and its needs, Creglow said, school districts can expect to pay between $20,000 and $70,000 for the service.

Elsewhere in the nation, school districts have resorted to a number of other tactics to help fill vacant teaching and administrative posts. Last year, administrators at Calumet High School in Gary, Ind., used an online service provided by international personnel firm USA Employment Inc. to interview teaching applicants from India via the web.

Michigan-based staffing giant Kelly Services Inc. offers Kelly Educational Staffing, a substitute-teacher staffing program designed to relieve schools of the administrative burden associated with finding, training, scheduling, and managing the substitute teacher workforce, according to the company’s web site. The service looks to ease certain administrative headaches by conducting the hiring process, completing candidate background checks, providing automated scheduling and reporting tools for better substitute management, and offering retention programs such as vacation pay, weekly wages, holiday-bonus pay, and medical benefits for temporary and temp-to-hire teachers.

Additionally, the Kelly Educational Staffing model includes fulfillment of non-teaching positions. The program also staffs administrative assistants, office clerks, food service staff, and custodians. All positions can be filled using Kelly’s Automated Scheduling System (KASS), an internet- and phone-based scheduling tool that allows teachers to post their absences online, where eligible substitutes can log on or call in to monitor upcoming vacancies and accept assignments based on availability, the company said. To date, Kelly staffs more than 9,000 substitute teachers across 42 states.

Also on the internet, a new product called FacultyFinder.com, from Decade Consulting, LLC, of Montgomery, Ala., lets instructors seeking online teaching positions post resumes and professional profiles, which subscribing institutions can then search to staff growing distance-education programs. Since going live earlier this month, more than 1,200 prospective faculty members have posted profiles to the site, the company said.

Links:

Wake County Public School System
http://www.wcpss.net

Kenexa
http://www.kenexa.com

USA Employment Inc.
http://www.usaemployment.org

Kelly Educational Staffing
http://www.kellyeducationalstaffing.com/eprise/main/internet/kes/home.html

FacultyFinder.com
http://facultyfinder.com