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Joan Lewis

Sunday, April 18, 2004


Shortage of teachers
leaves children adrift


The federal government now admits the inflexible approach used in the No Child Left Behind Act does nothing to put qualified teachers in chronically understaffed schools. That's a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, everyone continues to dance around the real issue: teacher turnover. Concern about potential loopholes for unqualified teachers and the turnover they might cause misses the point. The real reasons for teacher turnover remain inadequate pay, inadequate support and inadequate respect.

As the Star-Bulletin's March 18 editorial correctly noted, teacher turnover is high in schools on the neighbor islands and Oahu's Leeward Coast, where I have spent the majority of my professional career. And yes, part of the solution would be for the Bush administration to provide states with the funds and training programs teachers need to upgrade their skills, as was promised when the law was passed.

Having seen the situation firsthand, I can attest that the teacher shortage problem is greater than the lack of academic continuity that occurs when platoons of teachers come and go with depressing regularity. What's most insidious is the emotional impact on the students. Teachers are more than dispensers of information. They are guides, advocates for their students and islands of stability in the chaos of economically depressed communities.

When these safe harbors are taken away from children, the effect is devastating. The impact is felt far beyond the loss of academic support. The result is increased alienation and distrust. Children create emotional bonds with teachers and suffer greatly when they are broken. They will only give their trust so many times before they cut their losses. These are the children we leave behind.

Every year, about 1,300 teachers leave our public schools. We're now nearing the end of the school year and many positions across the state have never been filled. Until the pool of qualified teachers in all districts has stabilized, the areas of greatest need will continue to suffer most. The Star-Bulletin editorial suggested maintaining qualification requirements and giving teachers an opportunity to spend the additional time, effort and money to bring their credentials up to NCLB standards.

The Star-Bulletin would do well to direct its advice to the state administration, as well as the feds. Please tell the governor to put her money where her mouth is and make a meaningful investment that will attract and retain highly qualified teachers. Right now, there are several bills in the Legislature to improve the lot of Hawaii's public school teachers, including one to fund annual increments, like those that teachers elsewhere in the nation receive. These compensation measures deserve her support.

The Star-Bulletin is right: "Qualified teachers are the most important component for good education and the law's goals cannot be achieved without them."

Yet, until the supply of teachers meets the demand, the problems described by the editorial will continue to undermine our schools and leave behind countless children. And the last time I took economics, the supply line crossed the demand line where the equilibrium price is reached. Right now, we're not even close.


Joan Lewis is a teacher at Kapolei High School.

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