Students Need Better Teaching

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - August 15, 2007

Hawaii employers need 28,000 new workers every year.

“Two-thirds of those to replace retiring workers or workers who are moving out of the state,” says Mike Rota of the University of Hawaii’s Community College System’s office. “One-third are new jobs.”

But Hawaii’s public and private high schools only graduate 14,000 students each year- 10,000 from public schools, 4,000 from private - only half of the number needed.

And that’s only half of the problem. Hawaii ranks among the top states in the nation in its high school graduation rate. In terms of their competence, however, Hawaii’s high school graduates don’t do well.

According to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 18 percent of Hawaii’s students are “at or above proficiency” in math, 18 percent in reading, 15 percent in science and 18 percent in writing.

Those numbers constitute slight improvements in two of the four areas over the last 14 years. But they lag dramatically behind the top Mainland states, where 38-41 percent of students score “at or above proficiency” in math, reading, science and writing.

It’s worse in Hawaii’s poverty areas. There only 7 percent achieve proficiency in math, compared to 22 percent in poverty areas in the highest scoring Mainland states.

“Those numbers are consistent with our community college placement exams,” says Rota. “Eighty percent of our entering students are not reading for Math 100, our freshman level course.”

Hawaii has always depended on imported labor, as Rota explains: “We don’t have a large enough population base to fill all our jobs,” he says.

The first wave of imported workers arrived in 1852, a boatload of Chinese to work in Hawaii’s sugar fields. And, of course, boatload after boatload after boatload of immigrant Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Portuguese, Koreans and others would follow to feed the labor maw of plantation Hawaii.

In more recent decades, Hawaii’s Department of Education has sent recruiters across the country seeking teachers for island schools. Rota was one of them, arriving in 1967 to teach drafting at Hilo High School.

Rota paid $25 a month to live in a teacher’s cottage in Hakalau on Hawaii Island. The plantations, of course, provided housing and healthcare to its workers.

“There’s nothing wrong with importing your labor force,” says Rota, “but it’s only sustainable if you can provide your workers with low-cost housing and healthcare.”

Hawaii isn’t doing that today. Ask the public school principal who hires two or three new teachers every year from the Mainland. Together with other young teachers, they rent a house for a couple of years and live and teach in the islands of sunshine and gentle beaches. Then they take a long look at Hawaii’s housing costs - $590,000 for a middling home on Oahu - and they buy a one-way ticket home.

Regarding the low scores of Hawaii’s students in math, reading, science and writing, Rota points to high school curricula. “We have standards in our high schools, but we have no established curricula to meet them.

Essentially we have 12,000 teachers in their classrooms trying to achieve those standards in 12,000 different ways.”

A teacher can only do that which she knows how to do. Some teachers do better than others - 20 to 25 percent of them produce satisfactory outcomes.

In trying to improve our schools, we tend to focus on the wrong issues: school community based management or local school boards. What we need to focus on is what teachers do on a daily basis.

“We have to change the knowledge base of teachers; it all revolves around the teacher, the curricula and the students. We have to educate and continually re-educate 12,000 teachers in what devices work best in teaching science, math, writing and reading.”

Rota points to proven high school math and science curricula produced at the Center for Occupational Research and Development in Waco, Texas, as part of the answer: “We’re not currently investing enough in curricula that works. We have to.”

Footnote: I first talked to Rota about work-force development two weeks ago on PBSHawaii’s Island Insights. The discussion was the fifth of six programs in which Island Insights focused on education issues in Hawaii.

PBS-Hawaii’s new president, veteran island journalist Leslie Wilcox, has expanded Island Insights to an hour, given it a new slot at 7:30 pm on Thursdays, hired another veteran journalist, Colette Fox, to produce it, and allowed for viewers to call in with comments and questions.

Wilcox insists on keeping a shaky moderator in place, i.e., me, but I’ve learned a lot these past few weeks, and I think we’re doing something of value for the community. I invite my 11 regular readers to give it a look (and any others who pass by this way) - and let me know what you think.

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