Sunday, January 31, 2010


Education reform, maybe

by Larry Geller

Three governors put a full-court press on education reform in today’s Advertiser.

The article deserves detailed analysis, but without time to do that right away, I’d like to make some short and admittedly inadequate comments before the article gets too old. These are just things that popped out for me as I read the article.

The snips are from Education reform must put kids first (1/31/2010).

• Special education: Some say Hawai'i has many special-needs students, but Census Bureau data show Hawai'i has a relatively low percentage of students who require special-education services— 11.69 percent versus the national average of 14.65 percent.

This may not be a very large discrepancy (I wonder what the spread is for other states). But somewhere around 1993 it was a remark by then Gov. Waihee that Hawaii had very few special ed students that helped trigger the Felix v. Waihee lawsuit. At that time there were vanishingly few special ed students receiving services at all.

Anecdotally, parents are reporting that the DOE is cutting back on identification and services now. At some point this could lead to Felix II, if accurate. So having less than average special ed students may not be a good thing to boast about.

Point taken that special ed is not responsible for the poor performance of Hawaii schools, and it is a valid point.

• Private schools: Some people say private schools in Hawai'i cherry-pick many of the brightest children. But 11 other states have a higher percentage of school-age children in private schools than Hawai'i's 16 percent.

Er, and the point is? Any number of states can have a higher percentage of school-age children in private school than Hawaii has, and Hawaii’s private schools can still be cherry-picking many of the brightest children. It’s a non-sequitur.

At least it shows that the number of kids we have in private schools isn’t unusual. Remember this the next time public school bashers remark on the number of kids in private schools here.

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 Hawai'i 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.

I’ve worked with many principals over the Felix years. Hawaii has some great principals. And many duds. Give duds more power and resources and they are still duds. It seems we cannot get rid of the underperforming principals (same complaint as is made about teachers). I could go for giving the good principals more power and resources and replacing the duds.

During the Felix consent decree, principals were often responsible for interfering with the progress of the settlement. For example, the Superintendent could issue a memo to special ed teachers and the principals could stop it from getting to them. It happened. Principals also insisted on running IEP meetings their way instead of the legal way.

I just mention this to illustrate that the three governors may be oversimplifying things a bit.


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.

Yes, Hawaii’s short school year is a disgrace. Appointing the school board or superintendent may not solve that, though. The governor agreed to the Furlough Fridays, remember. A governor’s appointee would presumably have gone along with the boss’s wishes.

There is a New England saying that has been adapted by critics of high-stakes testing, “You can’t fatten a cow by weighing it.” The intense pressure to meet nearly impossible yearly testing goals certainly affects the quality of student education. The governors seem to think you can satisfy NCLB and teach critical thinking at the same time. Critical thinking and some other subjects basically haven't been taught in public schools for ages—there’s no time, thanks to NCLB. NCLB has crowded out music, PE, and more in many school systems.

We’re turning out little robots who can do nothing but read and do math. NCLB has been the one thing that has shaken up public schools everywhere in the country, but it is still widely criticized by those who care about giving children what we used to call a well-rounded education.

No one objects to reasonable testing, but these three govs need to do their homework on this.

Finally, this:

Hawai'i 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 Hawai'i, First Hawaiian Bank and Bank of Hawaii combined.

Um, so what? In New York State, do the schools employ more workers than all the big Wall Street firms combined? What’s wrong with that?  Another non-seq.

There’s a saying that policy is personnel. Just like appointing supreme court justices, a governor gets to leave a long-lasting imprint on government by means of appointments.

Governor Lingle has worked at undermining Hawaii’s present public education system for some time and received little sympathy or cooperation. One proposal, the weighted student formula, was to be adopted and has been, though only in part.

The argument that Lingle or successor governors should be able to appoint a school board is reasonable to debate, but there is nothing to say that it will bring about improvement in Hawaii’s public education. There could be, and I suspect there are, other motives behind it.

Having said all this, I think the three governors have performed a service by keeping public education in the spotlight.

My comments above are only my own opinion, and I’m no expert. I’m looking forward to reading some responses to their article in the paper from those with experience in public education.


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