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Teacher flexibility needed

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The state Department of Education needs to apply some of its collective brainpower to the problem of the year — how to devote more time out of the teachers’ workday to instruction of children, as is now required by law — and proceed with one key assumption.

And that is: There is a way to solve this thing.

It’s not entirely clear that all the people charged with the public education of Hawaii’s kids are going at this challenge with the can-do attitude that inspired the DOE’s winning Race to the Top federal grant award.

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi describes the job of changing schedules as "a scramble" and the DOE position confronting both the new mandate and union pushback as being "between a rock and a hard place."

That’s not exactly a rallying cry, but at least Matayoshi acknowledges that the DOE will "make the effort for the kids to make the schedule work." And it exhibits less of the defeatism on display from the Hawaii State Teachers Association.

Wil Okabe, HSTA president, expressed skepticism last week that extra instructional time can be inserted into the teachers’ contractual seven-hour workday.

He will have a tough time making a persuasive case of that. As parent activist Melanie Bailey points out, the schedule also includes about an hour of "miscellaneous" time that could be redirected to instruction. Given that the teachers will still retain their half-hour lunch break and 40 minutes for class preparation, it’s hard to argue that the schedule has no give.

What’s prompting this discussion is Act 167, enacted last June, which compels the DOE to work 1,080 student instructional hours into the calendar by the start of the 2013 school year. This push happens in two phases. The coming 2011 academic year must comprise 915 instructional hours in the elementary grades and 990 in secondary grades.

Negotiations between the DOE and HSTA should include discussions about creative ways to compensate for the loss of miscellaneous time. Can departments find ways to coordinate matters without face-to-face meetings? Could the DOE central and district offices be restructured to free up some staff to help classroom teachers with extracurricular work or other burdens?

Matayoshi is right that the handful of schools using a multitrack schedule will need a waiver, at least in the early years of the transition. But during the legislative session that begins in a little more than a week, lawmakers have to recognize that these schedules were meant as a stop-gap solution for coping with excessively large student enrollments in certain areas. Finding a way to convert these schools back to a conventional daily schedule should be part of the discussion.

In order to fulfill the 2013 school-hours mandate, there should be negotiations about extending the school day beyond seven hours, with appropriate compensation. But the public will certainly be more amenable to absorbing that cost if the union shows a little flexibility now. Teachers can achieve the more modest immediate goals by approaching daily routines in a different way.

Schools around the country manage to deliver the level of instructional service mandated by the new law. If this state is serious about its resolve to "race to the top," teachers — and bureaucrats — must change the route they’re following or the whole journey to reform education will go seriously off course.

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