Do Teachers Make the Grade?

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.

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.



Mitch D’Olier, CEO of the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, has been working on improving public education in Hawaii for years, and says that quantifying teacher performance is difficult, but vital to ensuring the success of students. “It’s all about what happens in a classroom between a teacher and those kids,” he says. “All this other stuff is periphery, and it’s easier to work on, because nobody quite knows what makes an effective teacher. We have NCLB’s definition, and we have our licensing definition, and I would tell you that both of them are B.S. That’s my own personal view. They’re both ridiculous.”

The Castle Foundation has a real stake in this matter—it’s donated $8.9 million in the form of 99 education-related grants in Hawaii since 2004, and D’Olier and his colleagues have been intensely focused on tracking down hard data that would demonstrate how effective, or ineffective, specific efforts have been. As foundation executive director Terrence George explains, education reform needs to hinge on real data, rather than optimistic theories. “Let’s actually look for evidence at the output side of this machine we call public education, and then learn from the people who seem to have output values that are better than the norm,” he says. “What are they doing different?”

To that end, Castle Foundation has been assembling an online dashboard that collects statistics such as third-grade reading comprehension, and presents the data in a useful way to administrators, teachers and parents. It’s a work in progress, and one of the missing pieces is a way to track individual student growth—a crucial element in quantifying teacher performance.

If the Castle Foundation is this concerned with proving the effectiveness of the millions it’s spent on education, shouldn’t the DOE be similarly focused on measurable results for the $2.4 billion it spends per year?

But just as it’s a mistake to get too caught up in the manini details of NCLB requirements, it’s a mistake to pin Hawaii’s educational hopes on an as-yet undeveloped assessment system that could take 10 years to start spitting out usable data. We as a state need to make concrete steps toward being able to hold teachers accountable for their students’ performance. Metrics are a big part of that, but there are three factors contributing to teacher quality that we can tackle right away:

• We can do better at bringing in and keeping more new and highly qualified teachers.
• We can make it easier to get rid of underperforming, inflexible teachers.
• We can do a better job of training and mentoring the current body of Hawaii educators.  

Carolyn Tsukamoto (right) mentors new teacher Cheryl Ushijima at Haha‘ione Elementary. It’s part of a pilot program being tried out in the Kaiser complex that uses a comprehensive induction model created by researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Photo: Rae Huo

Status quo

Since the DOE can’t link student outcomes to teacher performance, it relies on school principals to assess each teacher via classroom walkthroughs and interviews. The current system is called PEP-T (professional evaluation program for teachers), and lets principals rate a teacher annually as “satisfactory,” “marginal” or “unsatisfactory” in five categories:

• Designs and implements effective strategies to develop self-responsible/independent learners.
• Creates and maintains a positive and safe learning environment.
• Uses assessment data.
• Demonstrates professionalism.
• Reflects on practice.

But while principals are responsible for evaluating their teachers and maintaining high quality instruction in the schools, they’ve been stripped of the tools to carry out that mandate.

Thanks to restrictions in the Hawaii State Teacher’s Association’s collective bargaining agreement, even if a principal encounters an ineffective, unresponsive teacher, the process of getting rid of that teacher has been made cumbersome and time-consuming, often prohibitively so.

Gerald Teramae, then principal of Jarrett Middle School, spoke with us three years ago on this topic, frustrated with a system that has turned the firing process into a two- to three-year ordeal. Now at Kalani High, he says nothing has changed. “I still feel that, as administrators, we give up a lot of our management rights,” he says. “We’re fair and professional in what we do, and yet we don’t have the control to hire and terminate who we need to.

“In the business world, if you don’t do your job, if you don’t show up to work on time, meet your deadlines, the process is not going to take three years. What if that was your kid, and they had to be in that teacher’s class for two years? We need to do what’s right for kids.”

Teramae echoes a message being delivered on the national stage. In his March speech on education, Obama said, “We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. And that means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. …  Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high.”

We spoke with Roger Takabayashi, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, to get the union’s perspective on the situation. He maintains that the problem isn’t that the firing process takes too long, but that principals’ schedules are so hectic. “I don’t think it’s too difficult; I think [principals] don’t have enough time,” he says. “They’re so busy running the school, being curriculum leaders.”*

*Ironically, while Takabayashi is fine with the current, convoluted method for dismissing ineffective teachers, he thinks it should be easier to get rid of problem students. “We don’t have enough programs to remove disruptive students; we need a lot more of those,” he says. “As a student services coordinator, when I had a disruptive student, I had to take weeks before I could have the student placed in any type of program.”



Kalani High School principal Gerald Teramae says the process of firing an ineffective teacher can take up to three years—too long. “What if that was your kid in that teacher’s class? We need to do what’s right for kids.”

Photo: Rae Huo

It’s become so difficult to shake up schools’ personnel lineups that Hamamoto has turned to legislation that would allow her to replace entire staffs at failing schools, including teachers, principals and support staff. It’s called reconstitution, and it’s the nuclear option of school reform. The freedom granted by HB172 (which stalled in the state Senate as we went to press, but will likely be revisited next session) would be limited to schools that have been in restructuring for four years or more without significant academic improvement, but Hamamoto says it’s a necessary step if anything is going to change.

“You’ve got to start fresh, a clean slate, with the vision, and the mission,” she says. “Those who choose to come on to a reconstituted school know clearly up front at the beginning of the journey what is expected of them, and that’s their commitment, to participate and engage in the school’s vision.”

The HSTA opposed the prospect of mass staff shakeups, saying it would be disruptive rather than helpful. Testimony for the bill included more than 50 pages worth of e-mails and letters from teachers across the state denouncing the idea.

Says Takabayashi: “I think the harm of having such a law is detrimental to the whole profession. Knowing there’s a hammer over your head because the child doesn’t grasp the unit is very difficult. I’ve taught 13-year-olds for my entire 40-year career, and some of them you just can’t get to. They’re not ready.”

Not everyone in the schools hates the idea of school reconstitution. Teramae sees the idea as a call to action. “The system has been such that it encourages complacency,” he says. “I think it’s a wakeup call to all of us, both administrators and teachers: Ladies and gentlemen, do your job. Your job is to educate our students to the best of your ability. Complacency will not be tolerated, expectations will be high.”

Hiring and Keeping New Teachers

Reconstitution may have a critical flaw, however. Sure, fire ’em all. But replace them with who? Without enough new talent on tap, the exercise may amount to little more than reshuffling.

Indeed, many principals have their hands full just keeping a complete staff on board. The statewide shortage of teachers forced schools to resort to 1,305 unlicensed, emergency hires just to make ends meet for the 2007/2008 school year.

Campuses outside of metro Honolulu, and in economically disadvantaged areas, are particularly hard hit. Gail Awakuni, principal of Campbell High in Ewa, says, “By the time we get a list of teacher applicants, there aren’t any people left, because they’ve been grabbed by all the other districts.”

Hawaii’s local colleges of education don’t pump out enough graduates to fill the roughly 1,500 slots that open up every year. Matthew Lorin, the Castle Foundation’s program officer for education, says the DOE could do better at recruiting on the Mainland: “What we’re discovering is that [the DOE] recruit later in the cycle,” he says. “This year we’re not going to the Mainland at all, because of budget concerns, so we’re recruiting remotely, which is almost impossible. We don’t even get to interact with graduating teachers until close to graduation, and we’re not making offers until after they’ve graduated.”

Adds D’Olier: “Our offers go out late compared to other places. And who gets jobs first? The best guys or the worst guys?”

Part of the challenge of recruiting teachers from the Mainland is inspiring them to move here. Hawaii may be paradise, but it’s an expensive, isolated one, and the districts with the need for the most teachers are distinctly less paradisiacal than what’s marketed on postcards. Hawaii has some tools. We cover relocation costs, even pay a $5,000 bonus to teachers who agree to teach in a restructured school or a school that has not made adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Still, it’s not enough.



The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation has donated almost $9 million in education-related grants since 2004. Seen here, executive director Terrence R. George, president Mitchell D’Olier and program officer for education Matthew Lorin.

Photo: Rae Huo

There is an organization in Hawaii doing a great job at luring new talent to Hawaii’s most needy areas, however.

Teach for America, a national corps made up of recent college graduates and professionals who commit two years to teach in urban and rural schools, has been in the state for three years, and has already gained a reputation for providing exemplary teachers. There are 105 actively enrolled TFA teachers in Hawaii schools.

Part of the appeal is that the program attracts the best and the brightest. Jill Baldemor, executive of Teach for America-Hawaii, says, “More than 35,000 people applied this year, and we’re only going to be able to take 4,000. It’s a fairly rigorous process, and there are great, great people applying.”   

It’s not the compensation that draws applicants. TFA teachers draw a salary lower than licensed DOE teachers—$22,000 to $41,000 depending on living situations. What they do get, however, is a rigorous training program, a complete support system and additional tests that help the teachers track the progress of their students, as well as their own progress, over the course of a year. TFA teachers we spoke with who were finishing up their second year of teaching described the program support as being both comprehensive and useful.

TFA also casts a wider net when looking for applicants. “We’re recruiting a different group of people, people who would not ordinarily come into education,” says Baldemor. “We don’t target people with ed backgrounds; we really target people who have had a track record of achievement.”

Those who come aboard, she says, want to be part of a movement, and contribute to the community. It’s enough to make one wonder what the Hawaii DOE could be doing to inspire similar enthusiasm in its own applicant pool. Granted, it’s not precisely an apples-to-apples comparison; the TFA program is a short-term experience more akin to a stint in the Peace Corps than a lifetime career decision (Although half of the first batch of Hawaii TFA teachers who have already fulfilled their two-year commitment have stuck around to continue teaching.).

Once principals get a qualified new teacher in the door, it’s a struggle to keep them on the job for more than a year or two. Attrition is high, and many teachers transfer to more desirable schools once they achieve tenure in just two semesters. At Campbell High, Awakuni says her turnover rate is one-third of her teaching staff every year. (For comparison, Hawaii’s statewide turnover rate is just over 10 percent.)

When a full third of the school’s teachers start from scratch every fall, principals find themselves sinking a disproportionate amount of resources into basic training—an investment that disappears when those teachers leave for greener pastures.

“We train them on everything, because they don’t come with these skills from the universities. They have the pedagogy and the philosophy, but every school is different in its operations,” Awakuni says. “This year we even spent $20,000 to reimburse teachers for university courses, to give them an incentive to get highly qualified. And then there’s no guarantee that they’re going to stay, because of our geographic isolation. As soon as they make their tenure, they transfer closer to home. I’m not even going to get the return on my money. But I have to think that I’m helping the whole system.”

Even principals of schools in districts seen as more desirable can find it hard to keep new talent, thanks to the DOE’s policy of rewarding seniority rather than performance. It’s possible for senior, tenured teachers to bump out promising new ones, simply by virtue of having been in the system longer.

“We seem to treat new teachers worse than most big systems,” says D’Olier. “We have loaded our system in favor of seniority, more than other systems. We force movement in young teachers when other systems don’t.”

Teramae has seen this phenomenon first hand at Kalani High. Budget cuts have led to the elimination of 79 resource teacher positions at the state level of the DOE, but because of tenure privileges, those staff reductions have just been passed on to individual schools, where principals have to make room for the displaced teachers, often at the expense of less-senior teachers.

“I’ve lost a couple of really good non-tenured teachers who worked really well with students, to displaced tenured teachers who were placed at my school,” says Teramae. “It’s a very trying time for our entire department.”


Mentoring Our Teachers

If  we’re going to expect a lot out of our teachers, we need to give them the training, the tools and the support to do their job well.

Every school in Hawaii has some kind of mentoring program in place, but Lisa Johnson, a researcher with the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz who spent all of last year in Hawaii studying the situation, discovered that having a program is not the same as having an effective program. “There are a lot of teachers who are not getting the quality mentors that they need,” she says.

Johnson reached that conclusion after she went into 30 schools across the state last year, interviewing 135 new teachers, 35 principals, all of the complex area superintendents and about 15 more state-level officials. She found that while 80 percent of schools had a mentoring program, just half of them provide any kind of training for the mentors themselves. Less than a quarter of the schools evaluated their induction programs, to see whether or not they were effective.

“People at the higher levels tend to say, oh, we have a law that says there should be mentoring, and so we’re mentoring all our new teachers,” she says. “But when you talk to the teachers, you see that it’s a really complex issue, and not all of them are being reached in the ways we would like. In general, there wasn’t a lot of consistency in the training.”

Encouragingly, Johnson’s studies also show that, properly administered, mentorship programs can have a positive influence not only on teacher retention but on student performance.

She, along with the New Teacher Center (NTC), have been working with the Farrington/Kaiser/Kalani area on a pilot program that aims to do mentorship right.

At the heart of the program is a concept called “full release mentorship,” in which experienced, exemplary teachers are pulled out of their own classrooms and made full-time mentors for three years. Their new jobs are to work with 12 to 15 teachers on a weekly basis, observing, giving feedback, co-teaching, doing demonstration lessons, assessing students with them—helping each of the teachers become better faster.

The mentors themselves receive 12 days a year of intensive training to maximize their abilities.

Ellen Moir, the director of NTC, says this kind of intensive, focused mentorship is essential to making a difference in the day-to-day effectiveness of Hawaii teachers. “You can’t just bring everyone together in a room and give them some new training and then send them off and think they’re going to use it. That’s called spray-and-pray professional development, and it doesn’t stick,” she says. “You have to get into people’s classrooms, see what their needs are and really push them.”

Johnson says the numbers bear this idea out. In a recent NTC study, new teachers trained by a full-release mentor showed a measurable increase in the levels of in-class student engagement.

Ron Nozoe, superintendent of the Farrington/Kaiser/Kalani complex area, says the full-release mentorship has also significantly improved his schools’ retention rates. “Both Kaiser and Farrington used to have a pretty bad retention rate, but since we’ve put in the induction and mentoring program, our numbers have come up pretty close to 90 percent that we’re able to keep,” he says. “In just two years, we’ve really ramped up our ability to support and keep teachers.”

The biggest roadblock to expanding this program to other schools? Funding. The cost of a full-release mentor runs between $6,000 and $7,000 per teacher, a much larger expense (in the short term, at least) than asking one teacher to look out for another teacher on a more informal basis.

The Big Picture

Of course, no one believes that the gap between where our schools are, and where they need to be, will be closed by a few $6,000 mentors. In the big picture, we have a serious problem with teacher quality—defining it, retaining it, rewarding it.

It doesn’t help that the system makes it so easy to dodge responsibility. Student test scores not so good? Why not point to some other measure? Asked to evaluate the state of Hawaii’s schools, HSTA president Takabayashi says, “The media keeps saying the schools are failing because the test scores aren’t as high as some of the rest in the nation. Obviously it’s true because the numbers state so, but is the test the only way you measure student success? I think you look at attendance. It doesn’t sound like much, but students attending school shows they want to learn; they’re there.”

And if teachers aren’t hitting their marks, there are innumerable explanations for that, most centering on the multitude of things they don’t have control over: the curriculum, the quality of the students entering their classroom, the bell schedule, the teacher/student ratio, the percentage of special needs students, the engagement of parents.

Says D’Olier: “The real hard thing about that litany is, what’s whining and what’s real? That’s the sorting you have to do. Teachers by and large, and unions certainly, resist accountability. The teaching profession hasn’t accepted that we’re in a world of accountability, that it’s not going to go away. But there’s a huge amount of pushback.”

There’s also, as mentioned earlier, a model for success operating right here in Hawaii: Teach for America. How are they attracting and developing highly effective teachers? Through an ethos of responsibility.

As director Baldemor explains, “We’re big on data and accountability, and part of this is because we tell the DOE that we take responsibility to make sure our teachers will move the needle on student achievement and make academic growth with their students. We look at data; we look at results, what’s going on in the classroom, and use that to drive instruction and we hold our teachers accountable to that, so we as an organization can be held accountable to that.”

Just as TFA is accountable to the Hawaii Department of Education, so, too, is the DOE accountable to its students, to the parents of its students, and to us, the taxpayers who foot the bill for the entire enterprise.

“I’m not saying all our teachers come in as the greatest,” Baldemor says. “But the ones who rise to become the best are the ones who have the ability to continually improve their own effectiveness. They hold themselves accountable and don’t use the kids or the parents as excuses.”