Eric Stinton: How Hawaii Can Improve Teacher Effectiveness - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.

The process of improvement, in anything, fundamentally hinges on that which is in your control to change. That’s a fancy sounding rephrasing of a quote often seen on inspirational posters at schools: we can’t control the wind, but we can adjust our sails. And the more we adjust our sails, the better we get at it.

Opinion article badgeThis is why so many of our education reform efforts focus on teachers and schools, even though the most challenging problems schools face are really social problems that schools simply have to deal with. A child’s home environment has much more influence on their academic and social-emotional success than whoever happens to be their social studies teacher for a year. Schools can do little to change a home environment, but educators do have control over what we do in the classroom.

Even if this approach is incomplete, it’s still sensible. Teaching — and thus teachers — can improve. Teaching is not some mystical, immeasurable phenomenon. It’s a series of techniques that anyone can learn and improve upon over time. We have plenty of evidence to suggest which techniques work best.

The primary effort to evaluate teachers in Hawaii and help them improve is the Educator Effectiveness System, or EES. It was first introduced across the Department of Education in the 2013-2014 school year, after being piloted in 81 schools for the two previous years. The EES categorizes teachers as either highly effective, effective, marginal or unsatisfactory.

A large part of the EES process is getting observed. Teachers are observed by an administrator, with a meeting before the observation and a meeting after. This happens every year for teachers who are not tenured, and once every five years for tenured teachers.

The logic behind the EES is sound: any teacher can find ways to improve, and you can’t know how a teacher is doing without seeing them teach. But like many well-intentioned ideas, it starts to fall apart in the real world.

For starters, being observed once per year does little to affect anyone’s teaching practices, especially since that one observation is meant to cover five different pedagogical topics and dozens of sub-topics. One observation per quarter, with a narrower focus for each observation, would yield better results.

Having administrators as observers can also be a mixed bag. Principals and vice principals have a lot on their plate already, which often results in the observation process being a matter of checking off boxes. Beyond that, a lot of administrators come from non-teaching backgrounds, or have been out of the classroom for so long that they may not be able to offer much meaningful feedback for experienced teachers.

In fairness, the observer’s role is mostly to prompt teacher reflection, which is something anyone can do regardless of their background. But most good teachers reflect on their practices anyway, which means good teachers get the least out of the EES. The process shouldn’t treat every teacher as a beginner.

Another challenge with the EES is how it incorporates student growth into a teacher’s effectiveness. On the face this seems reasonable – when effective teaching occurs, learning must also necessarily occur – but the last few years offer a pretty clear example of how that rationale breaks down. Did last year’s test scores drop because there was a sudden onset of bad teaching, or because there was a viral plague that upended society?

Maui Baldwin HS
Increasing teacher pay and prep time are proven methods of improving teacher effectiveness.  Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

The EES may be able to account for something as large as a global pandemic, but what about more isolated, community-specific problems, like spikes in joblessness or neighborhood crime? These things happen, and they no doubt affect school-aged kids, but the EES may interpret it as marginally effective math teachers. We have to assume a static social environment to consider student achievement a direct reflection of teacher effectiveness.

It’s telling that the reward for demonstrating competence over time, which we call tenure, is having to go through the EES process less often. If the process genuinely promoted growth and achievement, you’d think it would be a more consistent part of the job. Instead, it’s like renewing your driver’s license — just check in every few years to make sure you’re not a disaster.

All of this adds up to a fatal irony: the EES is designed to provide evidence-based feedback for teacher growth, but now that we’re 9 years into the system’s implementation, what is the evidence that it actually does what it aims to do?

Perhaps we should implement an Educator Effectiveness System Effectiveness System (EESES) to ensure the EES isn’t performing at a marginal or unsatisfactory level. Though my hunch is that an overburdened and potentially under-qualified evaluator will mark everything as effective before moving on to the other 70 things on that day’s to-do list.

Luckily, there are easy ways to improve the EES. Have more observations, and differentiate the process so that veteran teachers can both observe other teachers and be observed by them. And since they’re doing extra work based on their demonstrated competence, let’s also pay those teachers extra.

But there are even easier ways to ensure that teachers are effective: pay them enough so more people will consider it as a viable career, and so current teachers don’t have to work multiple jobs to pay their rent (or, in rare cases, their mortgage). Give teachers more prep time – a norm at high-performing schools across the country – so they can put to use the knowledge and ideas they already possess but have no time to incorporate.

Increasing salary and prep time are evidence-based interventions that have been proven to work, whereas the EES is a convoluted and likely insufficient process that may or may not do anything to improve teacher practices. It’s sad, if not predictable, that there’s much more pushback against one of those solutions than the other.


Read this next:

Neal Milner: The Law Works In Mysterious Ways


Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.

Contribute

About the Author

Eric Stinton

Eric Stinton is a writer and teacher from Kailua, where he lives with his wife and dogs. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint and find his work at ericstinton.com.


Latest Comments (0)

How to improve teacher effectiveness?Elementary school teacher requirement: BA in a subject matter--no undergraduate degrees in education. High school teacher requirement: MA in a subject matter.Student teaching: 1 year at respective school level, with pay differential.College of Education: graduate degrees only in philosophy of education; history of education; cross-discipline education; comparative education.Department of Education: fulfill the needs of school as defined by each school.Teacher assessment and improvement: defined by peers at each school.Curricula: defined by students, teachers, community businesses, health and safety.

SwingMan · 4 months ago

Ok, I’m a former Hawaii School Teacher. EES placed so much emphasis on teachers’ performance. I left because the little angels (as parents thought) in my classroom are nuts.

Srft1 · 4 months ago

Get rid of the Union.Have school vouchers. May the cream rise to the top and raise the bar. Highly paid teachers can be just as I effective.

Cyo · 4 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

[class^="wpforms-"]
[class^="wpforms-"]

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.