Getting In The Way Of Teaching

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - February 08, 2006
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Education is the key to everything! It is the key to economic success and to good health. It is the key to social stability and good government. Education is the key to technological advancement, harmonious human relations and a sound democracy.

Education is key to the survival of America.

And teachers are the key to education. Not curriculum planners. Not standardization directors. Not budgeters. Not teacher’s union officials. Nt complex superintendents. And not school board members, legislators, principals or the superintendent of schools. No, it’s eachers!

That’s why I was both awed and honored to speak to 1,500 or so Big Island K-12 teachers last week - about half on the Hilo side and half on the Kona side. As I said to them at the outset, of all my speaking audiences, I value the opportunity to speak to teachers most.

It’s like the pebble in the pond, the ripples go clear to the classrooms.

But today Hawaii’s classrooms are experiencing far more than ripples. Waves actually, waves of uncertainty and breakers of near cataclysmic change. From my pre-program preparation to my post-program feedback, it became clear that our public schoolteachers are fighting just to keep their heads above water, and it’s difficult to teach while holding your breath.

* Consider: The imposition of Act 51 - the Legislature’s ill-conceived version of Gov. Linda Lingle’s popular education reform program - requires Student-Community Councils organized and conducted by principals and “volunteer” teachers to set policies and priorities, most of which won’t be implemented because of union rules, and little or no funding for any programs not preapproved by the state Department of Education.

So much for principals’ “autonomous” control of “70 percent” of his/her funds.

* Consider: The incremental introduction of the “student-weighted” formula for funding based upon the demographics of each school’s student population. Socio-economic levels determined by school lunch eligibility, number of students with “English as a second language” and other “special needs” students all determine a school’s needs and funding level. Schools with more diverse student populations get more funding than schools with more homogenous populations. That that some schools gained and some lost attests to the inequities of the old politicized system.

The formula could use some tweaking, but now - because of the collective cold feet of the DOE, the Board of Education and the Legislature, none of whom ever met a bullet they’d bite - the entire implementation is effectively on hold. So now when planning their budgets, principals and teachers have yet another dangling question mark in their faces.

* Consider: No Child Left Behind, an inadequately funded, federally mandated program requiring “standards-based” teaching and testing, the results of which determine a school’s grade, from “meeting standards” to “failing to meet standards.” On the line can be a school’s entire reputation, the morale and self-esteem of teachers and students, and even the fate of the school as the best students (and their parents) exercise their option to transfer out, leaving the “failing” school even more bereft. And we’re supposed to believe there’s no pressure on teachers to “teach to the test”?

* Consider: At a time when the DOE should be maintaining stability where stability is possible - where change isn’t mandated by the federal or state government - here comes another wave. They come up with an entirely new report card format, foregoing the traditional letter grades “A” through “F” for vague ratings of “meeting standards, kinda meeting standards or failing to meet standards.” I paraphrase, but it’s clearly nothing more than an ill-disguised pass-fail system - all the more ironic considering the laborious implementation process added to the teachers’ workload.

* Consider: The starting salary for our teachers is one-third to one-half that of a journeyman plumber with the same number of years training. Nothing against plumbers - especially the next time we need one! - but the future of Hawaii and America depend upon well-educated high school graduates, not clean pipe welds.

Let’s hope that through all this, our beleaguered public schoolteachers can remain focused on the reasons they chose their profession: to teach!

They need our appreciation and encouragement more than ever, and we must not allow the Legislature or the Hawaii State Teachers Association to derail Governor Lingle’s current initiatives to improve their lot.

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