Saturday, November 28, 2015         

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Teacher dropouts

DOE works to keep instructors past 5-year mark

By Mary Vorsino


More than half of Hawaii's public school teachers leave within five years of being hired, a sobering statistic the state is scrambling to address at a time when experienced teachers are needed to help turn around struggling schools, meet federal requirements for "highly qualified" teachers and reach ambitious school reform goals.

At the same time, the state is bracing for a wave of retiring baby boomer teachers and principals.

And while seeking to retain teachers, the Department of Education is also asking more of them, boosting learning expectations for Hawaii kids and moving to hold educators more accountable for student growth.

As part of education reforms linked to the competitive $75 million Race to the Top grant Hawaii won last month, the Department of Education wants to hang on to teachers by:

» Offering new bonuses of $3,000 or more for teachers who stay put in hard-to-staff areas on the Leeward Coast and neighbor islands.

» Beefing up mentorship and professional development programs for all teachers.

» Steering young, inexperienced teachers to less challenging school environments.

DOE officials believe new efforts to turn around low-performing schools will also improve retention by giving teachers greater job satisfaction.


Percent of teachers who leave Hawaii classrooms within five years:

» 2007: 52 percent

» 2008: 56 percent

» 2009: 56 percent



Public education at a glance:

» 11,300: Total number of public school teachers

» 1,328: Number of teachers hired in 2009

» 71 percent: Teachers hired with no experience

» 23 percent: Teachers hired who were non-residents

Source: State Department of Education


Robert Campbell, DOE executive assistant for strategic reform, said key is making schools more supportive places. As the DOE pushes to increase teacher accountability — and drafts plans to evaluate teachers based in part on how much their students learn — officials want to improve the work environment for teachers by offering them opportunities for growth, places to vent and mentors who can help them tackle problems.

"Nationally or locally, when we have surveyed teachers who leave teaching, the quality of support at the school is very important to the first few years being viewed as successful," Campbell said. "Being hooked up with a mentor will help dramatically with the shell shock of, 'I didn't think it was going to be like this. '"

The state is proposing to spend about $33 million — nearly half — of its Race to the Top grant over the next four years on "cultivating and rewarding" effective teachers and boosting retention.

At the same time, educators say, the job of teaching is getting tougher as the state rolls out a more rigorous curriculum based on national standards and seeks to use student test scores and other data to measure teacher effectiveness.

The DOE has about 11,300 classroom teachers. For the 2009-10 school year, 1,328 new teachers were hired. (During better economic times, the DOE has hired upwards of 1,600 new teachers per year).

Of the teachers hired in 2009, 71 percent had no teaching experience while just 9.3 percent had more than five years experience.

The biggest percentage of newly hired teachers — 22 percent — were placed in hard-to-staff schools on the Leeward Coast, followed by 17 percent in Central Oahu.

Danielle Paschal got a job at Kaala Elementary School in Wahiawa right out of college, at 24 years old.

This year, she made it past year five, kicking off her sixth year of teaching.

The special education teacher co-teaches a third-grade class with a general education teacher at Kaala Elementary. In their class of 19, nine are special-ed students.

Paschal said she "absolutely" has considered leaving the profession. She describes it as tiring, frustrating, and sometimes downright dirty work, with an enormous amount of paperwork. And she says there is always a new mandate or rule or revamped curriculum to learn.

But it's also rewarding, she says.

She says she finds fulfillment in seeing her students progressing, watching them get excited about reading a book or working out a math problem.

"I live in a world where I see what they can do," she said, sitting in her classroom on a recent weekday while her students were at recess. "I come to work because there are those few students who need a hug every day and that's probably one of the only hugs that they receive. If I gave up, what am I saying to the children?"

Hawaii has long struggled with its teacher retention rate, something the DOE attributes in part to the high number of teachers from the mainland and Hawaii's high cost of living.

In 2009, only about 44 percent of teachers hired within the previous five years were still in Hawaii classrooms.

The DOE does not track where the teachers who left went, but if national surveys are any indication, a sizable number probably left the profession altogether.

Education has long had high turnover rates because of the stresses of the job and the realities of life — teachers leave for higher pay, because of dissatisfaction or for personal reasons.

Campbell, the DOE's strategic reform specialist, said teachers who come here from the mainland are particularly at high risk of leaving soon. Many are thrust into Leeward Oahu schools and can have trouble adjusting or getting over culture shock. Others leave to be closer to family.

Of the teachers hired in 2009, about 23 percent were nonresidents.

The DOE has for years tried to help new teachers adjust by offering induction programs, which give them a taste for what to expect before they even step into the classroom, and professional development classes that can touch on everything from strategies for working with students from disadvantaged families to how to tone down a rowdy classroom.

But no one tracks whether those programs actually help keep teachers on the job.

Joan Lewis, an English teacher at Kapolei High School and a longtime professional development instructor for DOE teachers, said some of the expectations of new teachers or those coming from the mainland are unreasonable — and she's happy to see a move toward beefing up training programs to help educators grow.

"You get your diploma. You get hired. You're expected from day one to jump into the fray, know exactly what you're doing as if you're a veteran teacher," Lewis said.

Paschal, at Kaala Elementary, said her greatest resource in becoming a better teacher has been her peers — veteran teachers whom she can talk frankly with about the pressures of the job and who can give her tips, ideas and encouragement.

In her classroom on a recent morning, the 29-year-old was sitting on the floor with some of her students. The children were laying on their stomachs, some practically bouncing with pent-up energy as they wait to go through a reader.

"We're going to read together. Are you ready?"

The kids waited for Paschal to start and then began haltingly themselves, reading in the slow cadence of those still learning to sound out letters to form words.

Paschal instructed them to use their index fingers to point to words and stay on track.

Later, Paschal's kids were learning to write their alphabet correctly.

Some zipped through the assignment, but Paschal urged them to slow down, to take time and write their letters neatly — top to bottom.

"Look over here," she said to Mikela Chinen, whose worksheet was halfway done, but a little messy.

He did and followed her instruction to write a tidy capital M in the air.

"Start at the top, straight line down. Jump! Diagonal, diagonal, diagonal," she says.

She repeated the instruction several times, but Chinen was a little antsy, more interested in the things going on around him, eyes wandering the room, feet bouncing up and down a little.

Paschal sighed. "I see you need a break," she said. "Why don't you write your name and when you're done, I'll come back?"

Chinen didn't respond, and as Paschal walked over to another student he threw a pencil a few desks away, apparently more in jest than frustration.

Paschal took it in stride, pretended she didn't notice. And before long, she was back to help him with the worksheet.

Part of the DOE's push to improve retention is aimed at increasing the number of highly qualified teachers in classrooms.

Teachers without a license can only remain in Hawaii public school classrooms for three years, and the DOE said Hawaii's low retention rate is in part related to teachers who haven't secured licenses being forced to leave.

To be highly qualified, a teacher must be licensed and have passed all required tests.

Statewide, about 70 percent of math classes and 77 percent of language arts classes are taught by highly qualified teachers.

That's far short of the ambitious goal the DOE has set for itself, as part of Race to the Top reforms, to have 100 percent of the state's hard-to-staff subjects taught by highly qualified teachers by 2014.

Doing that won't be easy, especially given the expectation that a wave of experienced teachers will be entering retirement over the next decade.

At least 40 percent of all teachers are over 48 years old and 70 percent of school principals are 52 and over.

Last year, 334 Hawaii public school teachers retired.

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