Do Teachers Make the Grade?


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Photo: istock

They are the third rail of school reform: teachers. One touches on this subject at great peril. Teachers are protected by powerful unions, beloved by the public, adored by students. To bring up the issue of teacher quality in the context of education reform is to risk sounding like an insensitive jerk, someone who surely must hate America, public service and probably your mom.

However. For eight years, we have covered a state public school system that consistently ranks among the worst in the nation. When we first hit this subject in 2001, this poor ranking had already been the norm for years. The student body changes every year. But the adults who work in the system are the same. It can’t be avoided. We have to ask. Does Hawaii’s poor educational performance, just maybe, have anything to do with the teachers?


First of all, we love teachers. We love good teachers. We want them to be able to succeed, and enjoy their work as they do. A lot of the time, it’s not the teachers themselves that are the problem, as much as the system that employs them: good teachers held back, poor teachers coddled. So, before you light your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, please know, we only criticize because we love.

This month, we look at Hawaii’s standing in teacher quality, and explore the roadblocks to improvement—getting, keeping and supporting good teachers.

Looking for our "Grading the Public Schools" chart?  We update this popular resource every other year. 

See the 2010 chart.


Teachers are the Key

Teachers have the most direct and consistent contact with students, the greatest opportunity to inspire and pass on knowledge. In a March education speech, President Barack Obama himself emphasized the vital role teachers play: “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.”

We know this intuitively. Every one of us can name at least one teacher who lit a fire under us, who inspired us to study, who made a difference. Conversely, we can all recall a teacher who made us count the minutes until the bell, who let us slide through the school year without learning much of anything.

It makes sense to hold teachers accountable for their performance. And yet we’re stuck with a system that can’t quantify teacher effectiveness, that rewards seniority over achievement and that is inflexible to the point that Department of Education superintendent Patricia Hamamoto has been forced to seek legislation which would allow her to cut through the restrictive collective bargaining agreement in order to fire teachers at failing schools. 

Also, see "Editor's Page: What's the Difference?"  Hawaii public schools face challenges, we're told. None of them turn out to be unique.
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Honolulu Magazine September 2018
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