Poor isle schools lose best teachers
The DOE explores incentives to keep experienced faculty from transferring out
With a master's in education and 17 years of public-school teaching experience, Linda Wang fits the profile of the type of teacher needed on the Waianae Coast. She agrees.
"I love it there. I just feel a calling to work with the underprivileged," Wang said.
But after nine years teaching in Waianae at Leihoku Elementary, Wang left a couple of years ago, worn out by endless commutes between work, her Kunia home and her own kids' schools in town.
Impoverished areas such as Leeward Oahu typically have more difficulty retaining top teachers than affluent regions of the island, and recent data shows the students who might need top-quality teachers the most are less likely to get them.
From 2002-2005, elementary teachers in Leeward Oahu averaged about 11 years of teaching experience, and fewer than half had master's degrees or higher, according to Hawaii Department of Education data.
That compared with nearly 15 years' experience in Honolulu districts, where more than 60 percent of teachers had advanced degrees.
Separate data for 2004-05 submitted to the federal government to show Hawaii's progress in meeting a requirement that all classes are taught by a "highly qualified" teacher tells a similar story. All of the Oahu schools with less than 60 percent "highly qualified" rate were in poor areas of Wahiawa, the Leeward Coast or Ewa.
"This is a huge issue for us, but under collective bargaining agreements, teachers have a right to transfer," said Department of Education Personnel Director Faye Ikei.
The problem, according to two education finance experts who recently completed a study of Hawaii's school funding, is a salary system under which teachers get paid the same amount for their qualifications whether they teach at high-poverty schools or in more affluent areas.
This "can disadvantage school administrators in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools, especially when they must compete in the same labor market with schools that may appear more desirable to teachers pursuing employment," said the report by Bruce Baker of the University of Kansas and Scott Thomas of the University of Georgia.
None of this is news to teachers and principals in Leeward Oahu. In the mid-1990s, turnover became such an issue at Maili Elementary School that it went to a four-day school week to try to retain teachers.
Holomua Elementary Principal Norman Pang recalls that when he was principal at Makaha Elementary in the 1990s, about half of his staff would seek transfers out once they were eligible, after two years in the system.
"The team we had did a great job banding together through that, but when you're always getting new faces, it's tough," he said.
With Washington ratcheting up pressure to improve teacher quality and equity throughout school districts, the state faces increasing pressure to devise a solution.
Last week, the federal Department of Education faulted the state for not having a teacher-equity plan, a requirement under the No Child Left Behind law.
Ikei said the department struggles every year just to replace outgoing teachers amid high attrition and a nationwide teacher shortage. But it is beginning to look at various options for addressing teacher equity, which could result in requests for additional money from the Legislature next year.
But substantive changes might depend on major compromises between the DOE and its teachers union.
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Roger Takabayashi said the union has previously urged the department to provide bonuses to teachers in areas like Leeward Oahu, similar to the roughly $3,000 a year given to teachers who accept "hard-to-fill" positions in remote areas of the state, such as Lanai, Hana or Kau.
The department has declined.
"We've always argued for that. Some places are just hard to staff. Given the proper incentives, it might encourage them to stay," Takabayashi said.
But since many teachers do live near their schools, that could be problematic, Department of Education officials say.
"As more and more people move into the new housing in Central or Leeward districts, someone could get a (bonus) for 'hard-to-fill,' then walk across the street to work," said Robert Campbell, director of program development for the department.
The Baker-Thomas report suggests giving principals authority to offer more pay to certain teachers they want to keep.
That echoes recent recommendations from national blue-ribbon panels that also have suggested tying teacher pay to performance.
But that would entail major revisions to Hawaii collective bargaining agreements.
"That would open up a whole can of worms," said Holomua's Pang.
However, Baker and Thomas warn that failure to provide significant incentives could undercut the effectiveness of the state's new weighted-student formula, which gives schools more per-pupil funding for academically challenged students such as the poor.
In theory the formula would benefit schools in impoverished areas. But Baker and Thomas say the shortage of highly experienced teachers with advanced degrees would force high-poverty schools to use any funding increases they get through the formula by "purchasing higher quantities of less experienced, less educated teachers."
If proper incentives can be agreed on, Wang said, she might return to the Waianae Coast.
"The children there have so much heart. They're like little sponges. They're not as tainted as the kids in town, who are all about, 'Entertain me! Entertain me!'" she said.
"I'd go back there in a heartbeat."