Research brief finds increased teacher compensation can lead to more equitable education in Hawaii

More than 120 island scholars have endorsed the findings

Higher teacher compensation in Hawaii would lessen educator turnover at public schools across the state, especially those with a higher percentage of Native Hawaiian, Filipino-American and other Pacific Islander students, according to a newly released research brief.

The Hawaii Scholars for Education and Social Justice (HSESJ) Wednesday released the brief, which has been endorsed by more than 120 scholars in the state. It focuses on how greater support for local teacher recruitment; financial assistance for teacher candidates in comprehensive, university-based training; and incentives that retain Hawaii’s public school teachers can lead to greater equity. 

The nine-page brief can be accessed on the group’s website.

'When salaries are higher, more teachers come and more teachers stay'

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Lois Yamauchi, professor and researcher at the UH Manoa College of Education, explained the research brief's key findings: “When the salaries are higher, more teachers come and more teachers stay, and one study found a 25- to 40-percent increase (in salary) is what it took to keep people in their positions and feel motivated.

“We’re hearing that at the Legislature, actually. They’re saying, 'Well if we increase the salaries, is that really going to trickle down to the student?' Yamauchi said. "Lots of research shows that teachers make a huge difference in the learning of students.”

The brief emphasizes that the chronic underfunding of Hawaii’s public schools has contributed to poor working conditions as well as suboptimal learning environments and outcomes for students. Each year, roughly 1,000 teachers leave their positions in Hawaii’s public schools. As schools must hire 10 percent of the teacher workforce annually, these positions mostly have been filled with non-licensed or emergency hire teachers or left vacant. Research indicates that having a well-prepared and experienced teacher improves student engagement and learning.

Hawaii has a large pool of interested teacher candidates, but due to low teacher wages and high cost of living, many young people who initially pursue teacher education do not complete training or opt for a different profession altogether. Teacher turnover disproportionally impacts communities that are home to higher percentages of Native Hawaiians, Filipino Americans, and other Pacific Islanders in the most rural and low-income areas of the islands.

"Although 50 percent of our students are Native Hawaiian and Filipino American, only 16 percent of our teachers come from those groups, and the research shows that when you have a teacher who is like you, it doesn’t mean that as a Japanese American, I can’t be a good teacher to a Hawaiian student," Yamauchi added. "But the research suggests that when students of color have teachers who share the same background, their learning is enhanced in many different ways.”

Teacher candidates speak out about the need to attract new teachers, keep them in classrooms

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Madison Rayno, a UH Elementary Education major from Kauai, said, “I’m originally from Lihue, Kauai, and I decided to become a teacher because I wanted to give back to my community on Kauai. We don’t have as many resources as they have on Oahu. So I would like to give back to my community and hopefully encourage students that are of my same background to become teachers if they would like to.”

Hannah Sheldon, another UH Elementary Education major from Orange County, Calif., said, “I came here for college but I want to stay here and teach.

“Looking at the cost of living—the cost of eating and just being a teacher here and also paying off my loans and being able to come here and get an education seem completely unrealistic, and I can’t look at a future where I can live where I want to live in Hawaii and teach,” Sheldon added. 

Honolulu-born Taneesha Asing, who is also majoring in Elementary Education at UH, said she sees the difficulty of teachers' low pay firsthand because she lives with her brother, who's a teacher. 

“It’s hard to be a teacher. Especially here in Hawaii, where prices, the cost of living is expensive, and my brother, he’s a teacher, but he has two other jobs, because he has to pay rent. He has to pay bills here and they’re not cheap,” Asing said. "So I feel like increasing all teachers' salaries would be beneficial for all of the teachers, not just the ones coming out of the program, but the ones that are still in here, have been teaching for years. This job is underpaid, and everyone in this world knows it.”

“We’re young students. We’re struggling too. We want this to become our future, but without the support, where’s our future?” Asing concluded.

HSESJ made the following recommendations to improve the situation:

  1. Increase all teacher salaries in accordance with Hawaii’s cost of living.
  2. Offer affordable housing for teachers.
  3. Provide greater financial support to low-income and underrepresented students aspiring to become teachers by offering tuition assistance and living stipends.
  4. Strengthen and develop more partnerships among high schools, community colleges, universities and the communities in which teachers are needed.
  5. Support and reward induction and mentoring of all new teachers.
  6. Provide more funding for these initiatives.

HSTA's campaign to end the teacher shortage crisis tackles several key priorities

The HSTA has launched a campaign to end Hawaii's teacher shortage crisis in five years by improving tuition help for aspiring teachers, offering affordable housing help to educators, increasing teacher salaries, offering free professional development, and more. 

With important legislative initiatives currently being considered, HSESJ felt compelled to provide important information about the current educational context. The group used research in education and other relevant fields to show how underfunding affects public education and how increased compensation for public school teachers can lead to more equitable education for all Hawaii residents. Scholars studied 41 peer-reviewed journal articles, three books, two dissertations, and more than 35 other reports to compile the brief.

HSESJ is a volunteer group of researchers in Hawaii who conduct, review and disseminate research related to education and social justice in the islands.

Author: Keoki Kerr