A New Era for the Strategic Management of Human Capital

March 10, 2010

Allan Odden

Allan Odden

Over the past 18 months educators have seen the national education reform agenda transformed. Novel ideas and unique strategies have been placed on the national docket for serious consideration. This transformation includes a focus on developing talent and managing human capital, a core emphasis of the education agenda of President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

It’s critical at this point to concentrate on developing great teachers and leaders, says Allan Odden. Odden is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-directs the project Strategic Management of Human Capital (SMHC).

 SMHC is pressing for a comprehensive and substantive national policy agenda on human capital reform in education. The project assembled leaders of major education organizations along with innovative superintendents and independent education reform groups.

SMHC recently released a report, “Taking Human Capital Seriously: Talented Teachers in Every Classroom, Talented Principals in Every School.” It’s intended as a blueprint for the human capital agenda that needs to be addressed by districts, states (including Race to the Top proposals), and the nation. Some of its main points:

All schools need capable teachers and principals. Without strategic management of human capital, the nation’s schools will not attain the goal of increased student achievement.

Human capital is the ‘people side’ of education reform. The strategic management of human capital involves a systematic process of aligning school district academic goals with school district organization and practices, from curriculum and assessment to teacher and administrator recruitment, retention, and compensation.  In many large districts, unfortunately, human capital is not aligned with academic goals. Most urban districts face chronic teacher quality problems and high rates of staff turnover. Odden says school reform must include recruiting and developing talent, building organizational capacity, redesigning human resource departments, and tying them to school improvement plans. More specifically, strategic HR means aligning all HR programs to the view of effective instructional practice embedded in the district’s overall education improvement strategy so all HR elements are focused on systemically developing consistent and effective instructional practice in all classrooms and schools.

For the past two decades policy reforms have focused on standards and assessments. Reforms have not given high priority to the central role of human capital; in particular, how to cultivate and extend more broadly the expert performance of teachers and principals.  Unless there are talented teachers in every classroom and talented principals in every building, policy reform will not be realized, Odden says.

Two major metrics are critical to education reform: measures of teacher and principal effectiveness and measures of student learning. Districts and states need better ways to assess teacher and principal performance and competence, and more thorough tests of student learning. Qualitative and quantitative data should inform decisions at the classroom, school building, and district levels. Performance assessment should be based on multiple factors and include, but not be limited to, student performance indicators.

Six guiding principles undergird the strategic management of human capital. Odden says they reflect emerging understanding of the 21st century school. The overarching issue is ‘alignment.’ Everything must work in harmony: learning goals, curriculum, standards, assessments, organization, professional development, human resources, and administration.

Principle 1: Improve performance and close the gap. A school district strategy to improve student achievement should include a rigorous curriculum, development of professional learning communities, use of student data to improve teaching practice, enhanced use of teaching and assessment technologies, extra assistance for struggling students, parent involvement, and teacher and administrator instructional leadership.

Principle 2: Place effective teachers in every classroom, effective leaders in every school. Teachers, teacher leaders, and principals are the education system’s key people resources. Districts need a talent strategy to acquire, develop, train, reward, and retain the most effective people. Every district and state should take aggressive action to place effective teachers and principals in high-need schools.

Principle 3: Provide excellent instruction, successful learning. Teachers and principals must know and be able to do specific things; they must possess the explicit competencies that drive student performance, and strive relentlessly to attain that performance. These competencies are the basis of human capital management because they produce the ultimate goal—student learning.

Principle 4: Align systems for continuous improvement. Strategic human capital systems continually improve the teacher and principal workforce by responding appropriately to evidence of effectiveness on the job, using the measures of teaching practice and student learning. Well designed human capital management systems should continually improve the workforce by hiring those with the greatest potential to be effective, providing career-long professional development, rewarding effective performers, improving average performers, and improving (or ultimately removing) low performers.

Principle 5: Rethink career progression and pay. Evaluation systems must differentiate between higher and lower performing teachers and principals. Performance evaluation systems should inform key decisions including assignment, induction, professional development, tenure, career advancement, compensation, and retention. Top performers should be recognized and rewarded generously. Low performers should be counseled and given opportunities to improve, but if performance is consistently inadequate, they should be dismissed.

Principle 6: Core competencies: explicit, transparent, accountable. District human resource management quality is measured by its success in supporting and realizing the district’s education improvement strategy. Districts must review how well HR systems align with their education improvement strategy, maintain strong programs to develop and improve teachers and principals, develop ways to measure the quality of their human capital, and evaluate how successfully the systems perform.

Odden says implementing an integrated set of strategic state and local human capital policies will provide and develop the effective education talent the nation needs. Putting this all together will require close cooperation between states and districts, determined commitment from all parts of the education policy community, including teachers, teacher unions/associations, and administrators, and strong political leadership and support. With these supports in place, higher levels of learning for all students are within reach.

Read and download the entire report, including strategies for states and for local districts.