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Do the New Teacher Evaluations Help Improve Hawai‘i’s Public Schools?

The state rolled out its teacher evaluation system last year, much to the consternation of some educators. This year, there’s a new and improved version, but questions remain about what role evaluations play in better schools for Hawai‘i.


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To ease the concerns of rank-and-file teachers, the union and the state created a joint committee of educators tasked with ensuring the evaluations are fair. The committee recommends ways to improve future versions of the system. And the state already made changes suggested by the committee to evaluations this school year.


HSTA’s Okabe says teachers initially worried about the time and paperwork involved. “We’ve successfully cut this thing down to half,” he says, so most teachers will no longer be required to participate in two classroom evaluations, unless they receive poor ratings. And teachers who were highly effective last year will get a pass this year.


For upcoming school years, Okabe says his hope is that evaluations can be staggered so teachers are not doing them every year. He pointed to the old system of evaluations that required teachers to do an evaluation every five years.


“Once the teacher is deemed effective or highly effective, we need to turn our concentration to the teachers who need the extra help and training. That’s where the emphasis should be in the system,” Okabe says.


Okabe says teachers worry about the punitive nature of the evaluations, although both the union and the state admit the vast majority of teachers will never face a withheld pay raise or termination.


Shannon Kaaa, a preschool teacher at Fern Elementary, agrees. Kaaa is a member of the state’s joint committee to improve the teacher evaluation system. She says, rather than parents and the public looking at the evaluation system as a way to identify the “bad” teachers, she’s been talking about evaluations as a tool teachers can use to improve.


“I got a highly effective rating, but even I know I need to look for opportunities to continue to grow. It’s about continuous improvement,” Kaaa says.


As for the so-called “bad” teachers, she says, good luck trying to find them.


“I am not so sure there are so many bad teachers out there. Teaching is a really hard job and the pay is not so good. This isn’t a field where you can go hide out in a cubicle somewhere,” she says. 


It’s not a profession where you can fake it, either, she says. “It doesn’t take long before the bad teachers weed themselves out.”


Still, Kaaa says she has a larger concern. What effect does the rollout of so many reforms at once have on the potential to recruit and retain new teachers?


When we spoke with Kaaa, it was at the end of October, shortly after Teacher Institute Day, a non-classroom day where teachers meet to collaborate or take extra professional development. Kaaa traveled to Maui, where she met a group of teachers. Eventually the conversation turned to evaluations. 


“One of the teachers in the audience was a new teacher, and he really felt overwhelmed and burdened,” she says. 


New teachers face a whole host of challenges just based on being new, Kaaa says. It can take a new teacher as long as five years to understand the dynamics of classroom management, considered to be the most important and basic tool at a teacher’s disposal. On top of acclimating to the classroom environment, new teachers also face rolling out the new Common Core curriculum, reforms centered around data-focused instruction, prepping for the state’s switch to an entirely new standardized test and now evaluations. Even for seasoned teachers, it’s too much too fast, she says.


“You listen to him speak, you see he’s intelligent and you know this is someone we need in the classroom teaching our kids, and here he is thinking this is just not right. He feels this evaluation is evaluating him on something that he needs time to perfect,” Kaaa says. “My concern is we’re going to have these new teachers coming in and they’re not going to stay. They know they could be doing something else.”


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Honolulu Magazine April 2019