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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 2, 2007

Innovation is key to stemming teacher-shortage tide

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It's time to think creatively about the chronic, and worsening, teacher shortage problem in Hawai'i public schools.

One might argue that it's past time, given the statistics. Almost 21 percent of public school teachers here are 55 years old, according to the most current December 2006 Department of Education figures. And an even larger sector of the administrative workforce is in that age group: 23 percent of vice principals and 55 percent of principals.

The other half of the problem stems from teacher attrition. Within the first five years of their careers, many young teachers decide to quit.

On that score, the state Department of Education and the University of Hawai'i College of Education have made some inroads, with initiatives such as Ho'okulaiwi, based at Nanaikapono Elementary.

Wai'anae Coast schools have struggled with a high rate of teacher attrition, many of them young teachers who, within the first five years of their careers, decide to leave the profession or transfer to another school.

The idea of this program is that drawing student teachers with ties to the community and an interest in its predominant Native Hawaiian culture, and then giving them classroom experience there, will produce teachers who are more likely to stay.

Judging by its retention rate 60 percent of its six graduating classes are still public school teachers this approach is helpful. Last session it received two-year matching grants from the Legislature and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs; after that point, it deserves permanent status within the UH budget.

But the state needs to go even further with innovative ways to attract teachers.

Recent pay raises are sure to boost that effort, but high Isle housing costs present an obstacle in attempts to recruit teachers from elsewhere. Increasingly, Hawai'i has to fill more of its vacancies from within its own professional workforce, at least as a short-term strategy to whittle the teacher shortage.

That shortage is a national phenomenon, and other states' approaches merit attention. For example, California has had success with subject- and basic-education skills exams to shorten the path to teacher credentials for professionals in other fields, as well as other fast-track programs.

DOE officials and teachers are hesitant to adopt these approaches because they fear the depth of fuller educational training may be lost.

But nobody's suggesting an over-reliance on fast-track recruitment. Bolstered by teacher-mentoring programs and continuing education, a provision for other professionals to enter the teaching world should be considered, as an incremental step toward the ultimate solution.

After all, it's going to take every tool we have to avert a classroom crisis in the not-too-distant future.