Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Want to improve Hawaii’s education? First create jobs

by Larry Geller

Hawaii’s school problems are probably not going to be solved by appointing BOE members. The best deal would be an elected board reacting to public pressure—pressure that is created by the availability of good, high-paying jobs.

Below is an op-ed I originally submitted to the Star-Advertiser. They didn’t use it, so here it is.

But let me preface the article with a personal anecdote.

Year ago I visited high schools as part of a program to inform students of different employment opportunities in the tech field. Usually I was one of several speakers taking turns at the front of the classroom. Almost always, the others were from the tourism or hospitality industry.

So there I was, number two on the program, ready to talk about opportunities in telecommunications. In those days, that essentially meant working for GTE Hawaiian Tel.

Of course, students fidget around and some pay more or less attention to anyone at the front of the class. That was the case when the first speaker described management opportunities at a hotel chain. But when I took over, some students put their heads down on the table, looked out the window, read a book, or were otherwise disengaged.

The following two speakers were again from the hospitality industry and they got better student attention.

Why? I wasn’t such a bad speaker. It turns out that the chances of any of those students getting a tech job in Hawaii may be somewhat less, they felt, than getting a spot on an NFL team.

Of course, they were the realists. GTE Hawaiian Tel didn’t hire too many craftsmen or engineers each year. The students knew this. If they got a job, it wouldn’t be in telecommunications.

So why do well in science? Why do well at all? What kind of an education does a student need to prepare to make beds?

So I am convinced we need to create jobs and the educational system will follow by providing qualified graduates. Not that I know how to do that, mind you.

This is snipped from the article:

Only an elected Board of Education will be able to respond to public pressure to improve Hawaii’s schools.

So powerful is a governor’s control over a board’s policy that voters should weigh carefully whether an independently elected Board of Education should be replaced with a panel of robots synced to the educational policy du jour. If the switch is made, voters lose the opportunity to elect replacements for BOE members. No matter what testimony they may give to an appointed board, it’s possible that the board’s actions are controlled elsewhere.

Real school reform depends on parents, employers, or both, making demands on the system. For better or for worse, educational performance is related to job availability.

School systems bend to supply graduates who fulfill a need. As an example, when the USSR launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, the US Government responded, placing a high priority on engineering and science jobs. The media were full of space and satellite coverage. Students jumped at the opportunity to work in these well-paying fields, and schools and universities responded to the demand.

So the best role for a governor determined to improve education would be to create higher-paying jobs that require students to be better educated. The schools will respond here as they have elsewhere.

To improve the effectiveness of all boards, the Legislature could require that each provide its members with a basic education according to its role and function. They should also be required to learn Hawaii’s open meetings, open records, and ethics laws.

The press has a key role in education reform, including this newspaper. Not only could voters benefit from more complete information on Board of Education candidates, but the media might encourage a continuing dialogue on jobs and Hawaii’s economy. Without real change, the Islands will remain mired in tourism and supplying the military as its economic base, offering mostly low-level, low-wage jobs.

For those jobs, Hawaii’s educational system is just perfect.

By encouraging economic diversity, including new “green” jobs and expanding agricultural self-sufficiency, we will press the educational system at all levels to respond to the new demand.

There’s more to be said about appointed boards.

There’s a saying in politics that “personnel is policy.” Government executives, from the president on down to state governors, implement their policy by means of political appointments. In Hawaii, all governors have of course done this.

Over the past eight years boards and commissions have often become so tightly controlled that they are effectively muzzled in carrying out their advisory duties. The problem was recognized by the 2008 Legislature which, frustrated by being denied testimony from boards and commissions, passed Act 60 over Governor Lingle’s veto. The new law recognizes that “There have been times when a board or commission may have views or opinions that differ from the department director or governor” and permitted direct, unfettered communication between the boards and the Legislature. The law was necessitated by the monolithic control exerted over some boards by the Governor.

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So the jobs offered to Hawai'i students by its educational system and focus: military or tourist industry. No critical thinking required!

Exactly. And with the lack of critical thinking comes gullibility to politicians, advertisers, con men. And without critical thinking, improvement is less likely. Sounds like a corporate/political dream.

And yet good things still happen in Hawaii.

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