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Do Teachers Make the Grade?


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Teacher Daria Silvestro works with special needs students at  Campbell High School. She’s one of more than 100 promising new teachers that national nonprofit organization Teach for America has provided to public schools across the state.

Photo: Rae Huo

Where Hawaii Stands

It’s impossible to ignore the way Hawaii’s school system continues to languish near the bottom of just about every national education ranking. We’re 47th in the nation when it comes to eighth-grade math scores, and 48th in reading scores, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education’s most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.

Not only have our children not been measuring up to national standards, Hawaii’s public-school teachers haven’t been making the grade either.

The National Council on Teacher Quality ranked Hawaii as “Last in Class” in 2007. In its 2008 report, which focused on how states retained effective new teachers, the NCTQ handed Hawaii a D grade.

Local authorities can’t even handle the basics, such as teacher licensing. State auditor Marion Higa recently found that the Hawaii Teacher Standards Board had failed to create a working license renewal program, even though it had been created specifically for that purpose eight years ago. Instead, the board simply extended licenses without requiring teachers to show any proof of professional development, even after its authorization from the Legislature to do so expired in 2003. Higa estimated that 3,800 teachers are teaching with invalid licenses.

Jill Baldemor, executive director of Teach for America’s Hawai‘i office, says she expects a lot from her teachers: “We want them to set high, ambitious goals, and we want them to track and show what progress they’re making.”

Photo: rae Huo

Quantifying Success

We all want the DOE to hire and retain good teachers. But what, exactly, constitutes a good teacher? The DOE has multiple definitions, and assesses teachers according to them regularly—none of them are connected to student outcomes in a quantifiable way. The problem is not a lack of metrics. Students take quarterly formative assessments, as well as annual Hawaii State Assessment tests in math and reading, not to mention SATs, ACTs and other national tests. But none of these metrics are being used to link student and teacher performance. Hawaii Department of Education superintendent Pat Hamamoto says, “We haven’t gotten there yet. [We’ll] eventually be able to track student performance with effective teaching, but we haven’t gotten there yet. There’s no standard in place right now.”

To be fair, this is a national problem. The closest thing to a functional, quantifiable performance standard we have right now for grading teachers is language in the No Child Left Behind Act that requires every teacher to:

The DOE eliminated or rephrased more than 70 questions in such a way as to make them less personal to the survey taker, passive in construction rather than active, general rather than specific.  Read more in "Gaming the System."

No. 1: possess a bachelor’s degree
No. 2: possess full state certification or licensure
No. 3: prove that they know each subject they teach.

Pretty reasonable expectations, but Hawaii ranks dead last when it comes to highly qualified teachers (as defined by No Child Left Behind). We’ve got the smallest percentage of public-school core classes being taught by highly qualified teachers: just 68 percent. For comparison, the national average is about 95 percent; the top five states have percentages ranging from 98 percent to 100 percent of core classes taught by highly qualified teachers.

To put it another way, 2,500 out of Hawaii’s 13,000 public-school teachers are not highly qualified according to NCLB—almost one in five.

Our children should be taught by highly qualified teachers, without a doubt. But it’s a mistake to get caught up in teachers’ credentials and lose sight of what they’re actually doing in the classroom with those credentials. Diplomas do not necessarily guarantee success in the field.


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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