Sunday, February 04, 2007


Hawaii's educational challenges in perspective, our lives in perspective

Superintendent Pat Hamamoto's article in today's Star-Bulletin is must reading for those who nodded their heads so enthusiastically when they read Rep. Gene Ward's commentary in the January 25, 2007 paper. The bone of contention was poverty, and whether the DOE is using it as an excuse for its often low ranking among states in student achievement.

Supt. Hamamoto describes what to me is one of the strengths of Hawaii's statewide, unified school system:
What the entire education field understands is that poverty is a real factor that can impede student performance. Despite the fact that the effects of poverty are almost entirely outside of the schools' direct control, educators accept the task of working to overcome those external factors and are dedicated to the belief that every child can learn. This is coupled with the belief that all students -- of high or low socioeconomic background, of any race, despite physical or mental disabilities, and regardless of native tongue -- deserve the same opportunities for the best possible public education.
I believe this is a strength that other states lack: schools in Rep. Ward's well-off Hawaii Kai district are financed and governed as well as schools in remote rural areas of Neighbor Islands, for example. But that doesn't make things all better by itself.

Hawaii's educational problems cannot be blamed, as many people are fond of doing, only on its educational system. The legislature, about to spend time debating whether the state should buy its own airplane, might instead study how to put in place solutions to the myriad challenges that face our economy. Tourism is holding things together at present, but it is fragile, vulnerable and problematic in the long run, yet there is no other viable model that has come forward for an island economy. Our low unemployment is not a sign of prosperity since the jobs in demand are too low-paid and often menial. Raise wages (somehow), provide better jobs (somehow), provide children with opportunities for enthusiasm (somehow), provide their parents with leasure time and time to help with the homework (somehow), and the educational performance of our children will improve.

Parents do not flock to the legislature asking for a better educational system. The governor proposes change from time to time, but her motives are not clear. For example, her innovation in education testimony was marred by mixing it up with a call that benefits would go only to those students who stayed drug free (the state's own studies show that drugs are not a problem in Hawaii's schools, but drugs in schools make such great PR). Her speech was otherwise a repeat of a high-tech dream that been shown to be unrealistic so far and so will disappoint its proponents. Won't students be let down if there are no jobs for them at the companies the Administration believes will magically flock to Hawaii?

Of course we want a better educational system. Get people living on the beaches into decent housing. Put in some kind of rent control to protect those who are hard pressed to pay for rent, medicine and food. Control health insurance premiums so people do not have to choose between food and prescription drugs. Quit supporting drug companies and negotiate with them for lower prices for Rx Plus.

When those things happen, students will do better.

There's more of course. We don't have the answers, and we're not working hard enough on finding them. Let's continue to improve the schools so that children will have opportunities (though many of them will have to move to the Mainland to realize them).

Let's put our heads together to figure out what will improve our economy and quality of life on these islands. I think we should do it soon, because any of a number of factors could send tourism suddenly tumbling. And then what?


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