Often Overlooked HR Department Important to School District Reform, Study Shows

April 13, 2004


CONTACT: Lydia Rainey (CRPE) 206-616-7359, lydiar@u.washington.edu
Jessica Schwartz (The Wallace Foundation) 212-251-9711,

Often Overlooked HR Department Important to School District Reform, Study Shows

Case studies of three districts suggest new ways to make HR offices an ally in reform.

School district human resource (HR) offices play a crucial, but often overlooked, role in the success of school improvement efforts because they can determine whether qualified teacher and leadership candidates are successfully recruited, or look elsewhere for work.

The study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs found that to meet today’s demands for high student achievement, some school districts are beginning to rethink the role their HR departments play in school improvement efforts.  Efforts to make district HR offices an ally in district-wide reform efforts depend as much on close attention from superintendents and school boards as on changing bureaucratic routines.

HR departments can determine whether qualified teacher candidates make it to the classroom, or slip through the cracks. They can help principals find teachers who meet their school’s particular needs and support ongoing performance evaluation, or they can offer only perfunctory administrative support during the hiring process, according to the study commissioned by The Wallace Foundation as part of its education leadership initiative.

Interviews with forty-nine district administrators and school personnel across three districts – Houston Independent School District, Milwaukee Public Schools, and San Diego City Schools – found that efforts to reshape district HR to improve its efficiency and effectiveness touch on three critical areas: addressing skill deficits of the HR employees, increasing the responsiveness and power of the department, and investing in technology to better manage information.  But the interviews also suggested that these administrative reforms alone are no guarantee of change. 

“Without focused leadership to guide, support, and sustain them, central office departments like HR have a hard time living up to their potential as allies in school improvement efforts,” says Abigail Schumwinger, who co-authored the report, From Bystander to Ally.

The study finds that leaders can make a difference by:

  • Framing the department’s reform in the context of a broader vision for the district
  • Supporting difficult personnel decisions that arise with departmental restructuring
  • Committing long-term resources to upgrading information technology systems in HR

“Superintendents and other top leaders who want to improve their schools must also change how they structure and empower their human resource departments to support, rather than hinder, their reform agendas,” said M. Christine DeVita, president of The Wallace Foundation. “This study provides valuable lessons for policymakers about what schools and districts must do to get the highly effective people they need to succeed in raising student achievement.”

“HR reform presents a two-fold challenge for leaders,” says co-author Michael DeArmond. “It involves improving the technical aspects of HR – for example, the processing of paperwork – as well as transforming HR’s role and mission to better support district-wide reforms, especially reforms that envision principals as playing an enhanced role as on-site leaders.”

Other key conclusions:

  • Improving HR capacity begins at the top with careful selection of department directors.  Skilled departmental leadership can bring up-to-date HR expertise to bear on the challenges and expectations facing districts under reform, both around attracting quality teachers and supporting principals as on-site leaders.
  • Streamlining HR systems and supporting decisions at the school level involves rethinking the excessive job specialization found in most HR departments.  An alternative is to assign a jack-of-all-trades HR generalist to provide one-stop shopping to a set group of schools.
  • Superintendents and school boards need to recognize that technology investments in HR are not single-shot events – they are open ended and expensive. But without the institutional capacity that information technology provides, HR departments will struggle to respond to demands for change and performance.


For more information, contact DeArmond at 206-685-2214, dearmond@u.washington.edu, or Schumwinger at 206-685-2214, abbywinger@earthlink.net. The study is available online from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at www.crpe.org.  For more information and research on education leadership, please contact Jessica Schwartz at 212-251-9711, jschwartz@wallacefoundation.org.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs conducts independent research and policy analysis to improve America's schools. 

The Wallace Foundation is an independent, national private foundation established by DeWitt and Lila Acheson Wallace, the founders of The Reader’s Digest Association. Its mission is to enable institutions to expand learning and enrichment opportunities for all people through the support and sharing of effective ideas and practices. Its current objectives are to: Strengthen educational leadership to improve student achievement; improve out-of-school learning opportunities; and expand participation in arts and culture.