Grading the Public Schools: What It Means

How good are the schools in your neighborhood? Are they getting any better? This report card tells all.


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Hunter took HONOLULU Magazine’s “Grading the Public School” chart from last year and merged it with other DOE data on the socioeconomic environment of each school, looking at such things as poverty, the education level of area parents, the number of children in special education and in English as a second language, attendance, suspensions, etc. “This way, he comes up with an index of what the chances are in that community, where the school resides, for that kid to succeed.”

In Hunter’s analysis, Hamamoto explained, a school like Nuuanu Elementary, which scored an A+ on our chart last year, is in a community with an opportunity index of 100. Farrington High School, a D+ school last year, is in a community with an opportunity index of 37.

Hamamoto is quick to point out that this analysis is Hunter’s, not the DOE’s official response. However, it is basically the same argument advanced last year by DOE spokesman Greg Knudsen when we inquired about poor school performance. It is the same defense the DOE has publicly offered on numerous occasions: the learning disabled, the poor, the immigrants, the uneducated parents who don’t value education for their own kids. All these are factors beyond its control. It’s unfair to judge the schools as having failed when the environment these kids come from is giving them no opportunity to succeed.

However, something seems to have gone missing in the system’s obsession with econometric “opportunity indexes” and “factors beyond the school’s control:” the mission. From their founding a century ago, public schools were supposed to provide the opportunity for kids to succeed. All the more so when the schools may be those kids’ only chance.

Hawaii’s education leaders seem caught in a contradiction. “Public education is to take care of all the citizens, whether they choose to come or not, the whole idea is we’ll service them. That’s why we have compulsory education,” explains Hamamoto. “I believe in our mission.”

But when the DOE’s figures show widespread dissatisfaction with the schools and low test scores? “We’ve created schools in certain areas where there are these populations … I don’t know if I’m responsible, not me personally but as an educator and superintendent, for the people who gravitate to and make those communities. All I’m saying with the eight factors beyond our control is that they’re there and we’re working through them.”


“Once the people in the system start blaming the children, or blaming the parents’ economic status, they should go find another profession.” — Gov. Linda Lingle


To be fair, this is the same superintendent who dared to tell the state Legislature that the DOE is obsolete, who detailed in that January speech the many ways education is “shackled” by everything from civil service job descriptions to the DAGS monopoly on repair and maintenance, who insisted that she be held accountable for the system’s success or failure, who backs putting principals on performance contracts and who would take on the unions to provide merit pay for better performance by the schools. All of this may make her the most radical, courageous superintendent the state has ever seen.

Yet at some point, for this accountability to matter, education leaders need to accept that those “factors beyond their control” are in fact the most important tasks with which they have been entrusted. To teach immigrant children English. To serve the learning disabled. To give poor children the education they aren’t necessarily getting at home.

“These factors are no different than those that existed in the early days of this country,” says Gov. Linda Lingle. “My grandparents didn’t speak English when they came here, didn’t go to high school. But my father graduated from Purdue. He was expected to do well and they valued education. Once the people in the system start blaming the children, or blaming the parents’ economic status, they should go find another profession.”

10 most improved schools

Based on complete scores only, here are the 10 schools that rose highest in the ranks.
Honaunau Elementary HAW -47 225 147 D- C-
Hookena Elem. and Int. HAW +75 121 46 C B
Aliiolani Elementary HON +72 98 26 C+ A-
Aliamanu Middle CEN +65 218 153 D- C-
Sunset Beach Elementary WIN +64 88 24 C+ A-
Aliamanu Elementary CEN +61 190 129 D+ C
Kahakai Elementary HAW +57 125 68 C B-
Iao Intermediate M +56 234 178 F C-
Aiea Elementary WIN +55 217 16 D- C-
Hilo Intermediate HAW +55 155 196 C- C+


There are other signs that people in charge of our schools don’t want to hear about the job they’ve been doing. On a Saturday in March, the Board of Education and Department of Education hosted an all-day summit, “Reinventing Education for the 21st Century.” The theme was promising, but the execution of the day did little to assure the skeptical. Even the setting seemed designed to avoid painful self-examination—at the pristine, state-of-the-art Kapolei High School, it was easy for the 300 or 400 mainly DOE attendees, and the distinguished guests from Harvard and the San Francisco Unified School District, to think that Hawaii’s schools were in pretty decent shape.


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