Time for Change in Hawaii’s Public Education; The Governors – All of Them – Are on to Something

By David Carey
(Dr. Richard Kelley is traveling. His column will return on February 13.)

David Carey

David Carey

Three former governors of Hawaii – George Ariyoshi, John Waihee, and Ben Cayetano – have jointly issued a manifesto calling for major changes in the way public education is run in our state. Governor Linda Lingle, in her annual State of the State address to the Legislature, has also called for major change.

All four governors agree that a big piece of the problem is that at present, no one person or institution – the Board of Education, the superintendent, the governor, the Legislature – is clearly accountable for our schools. To remedy that, the governors all want to put that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of Hawaii’s governor. Then voters would know who should get the credit or the blame for the success or failure of our schools.

The governors are absolutely right. No large organization – and the Department of Education is by far Hawaii’s largest organization – can function properly without accountability.

In their manifesto, the three former governors called for three specific changes:

  • Create system-wide accountability by replacing the elected Board of Education with a board appointed by the governor. The board, in turn, would appoint the superintendent of schools.
  • Give school principals the power and resources needed to really run their schools, and then hold them accountable for results.
  • Increase classroom time substantially.

Governor Lingle also recognizes that “the current school system lacks clear lines of authority, responsibility, and accountability,” so she proposed “a constitutional amendment that makes the Department of Education a cabinet department with a superintendent hired by the next governor so all of us will know clearly ‘where the buck stops.’”

For both Governor Lingle and the three former governors, the bottom line is the same: make the governor accountable for system-wide results and principals accountable for school-level results, and increase classroom time substantially.

The governors – all four of them – are clearly on to something. Hawaii’s public schools are failing to give our children the education they need and deserve, if they are to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. Change is long overdue, and I hope that whichever course the Legislature chooses – whether Governor Lingle’s proposal for a gubernatorially appointed superintendent or the former governors’ proposal for an appointed school board – it will put the needed constitutional amendment on the ballot, so that this fall, Hawaii’s voters get a chance to take an important step toward fixing our broken schools.

If, as individuals, we let our legislators know that we, too, support making the governor accountable for the success of the school system as a whole, empowering principals and making them accountable at the school level, and giving Hawaii’s children more time in the classroom, we will all win.

Now, read for yourself the former governors’ manifesto:

Education reform must put kids first

By George R. Ariyoshi, John Waihee and Ben Cayetano
(Published in the Honolulu Advertiser, January 31, 2010)

The interests of Hawaii’s children should be our highest priority. Unfortunately, our public education system often fails to put students first. Furlough Fridays are the latest and most obvious indication that something is badly wrong.

Teachers, principals and parents — who want to do their best — are also victims of our broken system.

Hawaii can create schools that put students first, but meaningful change will be difficult. The public education system spends billions of dollars each year and employs more workers than Hawaiian Electric Industries, HMSA, Alexander & Baldwin, Hawaiian Airlines, Kaiser Permanente Hawaii, First Hawaiian Bank and Bank of Hawaii combined.

Yet what have been the results?

  • Median scores on national exams put Hawaii near the bottom of all the states.
  • Business and military leaders say the reputation of Hawaii’s public schools makes it difficult to attract top personnel to the Islands.
  • Labor unions say public school graduates are often unable to pass apprentice exams.
  • The University of Hawaii says many public high school graduates are not ready to take college-level courses offered at the community colleges. According to placement exams, 79 percent need remediation in math and more than half in reading.
  • Local companies say most high school graduates are unprepared even for entry-level jobs.
  • Furlough Fridays: At a time when students need more time in the classroom — not only to learn essential skills, but to prepare for tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act — those who run Hawaii’s schools made one of the nation’s shortest school years even shorter.

The present system is controlled collectively by the Board of Education, Legislature and governor. It’s as if we have a single car with three very different drivers, each trying to navigate a different route while arguing with each other. The results are predictable. We can’t expect good results — or know whom to blame for bad results — with so many competing leaders.

At the school level, it is unrealistic to expect success from principals who have too little control over resources and staffing. For example, it can take years of painstaking effort before a principal can remove an underperforming teacher from the classroom.

Here is how we can create an education system that puts students first.

Replace the Board of Education
Make the governor fully accountable for public education in Hawaii by replacing the elected Board of Education with one that is appointed by the governor.

The board would then choose the superintendent.

No one is fully accountable now. The governor, Legislature and elected school board all share responsibility for education. Shared power means no one is fully accountable, and each group blames the others for failures.

Ask yourself: How many members of the Board of Education can you name? What do you know about their backgrounds? What is their position on education? Most people will have difficulty answering these questions. In contrast, voters closely watch each election for governor and the major issues in the campaigns are well reported and understood. If the governor were accountable for public education, student outcomes and key education issues would be highlighted as a major part of the state’s main political campaign.

Make no mistake, powerful interests will fight to protect the status quo.

An elected school board may seem more democratic, but few individual voters watch school board campaigns nearly as closely as do the unions that represent teachers, administrators and other employees of the Department of Education.

Virtually every governor over the past 50 years has tried in one way or another to decentralize or reform the DOE. Each effort has had broad support from the public, but each failed because the system fought back against effective reform and the governor did not have the authority to overcome an entrenched bureaucracy. By giving ultimate responsibility to a single elected official — the governor — real reforms can happen.

Power to the Principals
Give principals the power and resources to be true leaders of each school, and then hold them accountable.

Principals make all the difference in the success or failure of a school; there are numerous examples nationally where a principal has transformed a failed school. But most principals in Hawaii feel powerless to make needed changes. We must give them the resources and clear-cut authority to transform their schools. Principals should be able to hire teachers and terminate underperforming teachers based on an evaluation process that emphasizes student growth and achievement.

Principals also need to wrest control of their budgets from centralized bureaucracies, which are insensitive to local needs. Principals currently control less than half the school-level budget, and almost all of that must cover personnel costs, leaving little for the particular needs of individual schools.

Put 90 percent of each school’s budget under the principal’s control, with support and oversight from a complex-area administrative team. They can allocate school-level resources better than a centralized bureaucracy. Though centralized services seem to make sense from an efficiency standpoint, greater efficiency will be achieved when principals have the option of paying for services from the DOE out of their school budget or finding a more cost-effective alternative.

More Classroom Time for Students
Children need more time to learn and teachers more time to teach. Hawaii had one of the shortest school years in the country, now made even shorter by furlough Fridays. The quality of classroom time is crucial to learning, but so is the quantity.

Preparing for important student tests takes time. Teachers argue that the testing required by the No Child Left Behind Act forces them to teach to the test and neglect other learning. Tests are not only required by law; they are a significant contributor to assessing student outcomes. Increasing classroom time will help students master the fundamentals and meet the standards that are tested, without sacrificing the development of other essential skills, such as critical thinking.

Just the Beginning
Our recommendations would be the foundation for a transformation of Hawaii’s public schools, but we recognize that more will be needed. Placing proper emphasis on student growth and achievement will require restructuring the education bureaucracy, ensuring that more resources make their way to the classroom and adopting changes that improve the quality of teaching, such as pay for performance, a student growth-and-accountability model, better support for charter schools and other reforms associated with the federal “Race to the Top” program.

Of course, further reforms should be the subject of many future conversations, but we stress, from this day forward, accountability is essential and that student growth and achievement must be the primary objective.

Additional Facts
We’ve heard many excuses for Hawaii’s poor learning outcomes over the decades, but none are valid:

  • Poverty: Apologists say Hawaii has a lot of students from poor families, but the reality is different. Hawaii has a relatively low percentage of students from poor families, as measured by qualification for the free-lunch program under federal criteria – 28.88 percent versus the national average of 30.53 percent.
  • Special education: Some say Hawaii has many special-needs students, but Census Bureau data show Hawaii has a relatively low percentage of students who require special-education services – 11.69 percent versus the national average of 14.65 percent.
  • Teachers union: Some people blame unions for Hawaii’s poor school system, and it is true that unions have helped block many reforms. But most of the states with the highest-ranked school systems have unionized teachers.
  • English-language skills: Another inaccurate excuse is that Hawaii has a lot of students with poor English skills. Students with limited English proficiency comprise only 8.67 percent of the total public school enrollment in Hawaii. The percentages are much higher in many other states: California (25.6 percent), New Mexico (19.9 percent), Nevada (16 percent), Alaska (15.6 percent), Texas (15.2 percent), Arizona (14.9 percent), Florida (12.2 percent), Colorado (11.8 percent), Oregon (10.5 percent) and Utah (10.2 percent).
  • Money: More resources are always nice, but school funding is not the reason for poor student performance. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hawaii is 13th highest among the 50 states in per-student operating expenditures, $11,060 versus a national average of $9,666. Hawaii’s all-inclusive per-student annual expenditure of about $16,000 far exceeds the annual tuition at most of Hawaii’s 125 private schools.
  • Private schools: Some people say private schools in Hawaii cherry-pick many of the brightest children. But 11 other states have a higher percentage of school-age children in private schools than Hawaii’s 16 percent.

Finally, here is what Governor Lingle proposed in her State of the State address on January 25:

I am proud of many of the services we deliver to the public, but one very expensive part of state government that I believe has failed to meet the community’s expectations over many years now is our public school system.

I came into office seven years ago believing we needed an entirely new governance structure in order to realize meaningful improvements in student achievement, and I enter this final year more convinced than ever that continuing the status quo structure of our public school system will never produce more than mediocre results.

Despite consistently spending more than $2 billion a year on education, we have not achieved the kind of meaningful results any of us can be proud of, and we continue lagging far behind other states.

The recent public concern over furloughs is understandable and I have made a generous and fair offer in an attempt to achieve a permanent solution to this situation.

But I ask everyone to be as concerned about the quality of education, as they have become about the mere quantity of education.

The time has come to focus not only on the number of days children are in class, but on what they are learning during those days.

The time has come for high school diplomas to mean that a student has the skills to be career or college ready rather than being a piece of paper signifying they sat in class a set number of years.

And the time has come for us to focus more on long-lasting systemic reform of public education than on temporary furloughs caused by the severest fiscal crisis in Hawaii’s history.

Regardless of how quickly furloughs end, our school system needs structural reform.

The current school system lacks clear lines of authority, responsibility and accountability.

Because the governor, the Legislature, the Board of Education, the Department of Education, and the Superintendent of Education all have roles to play, the public does not know who to hold accountable for consistently mediocre performance.

If President Truman had analyzed our public school system, he might have said, “The buck doesn’t stop here, or there, or there – it just gets passed around and eventually lost.”

I propose we offer our citizens the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment that makes the Department of Education a cabinet department with a superintendent hired by the next governor so all of us will know clearly “where the buck stops.”

Posted in: Weekly Lead Article
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