Editor's Page: Making the Grade

Our public school ranking reminded us that sometimes a bad grade is the best motivation.


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This is the second year we ranked the public schools, 256 schools statewide, graded A to F, on the curve.

We took some heat last year when we did our first public school ranking. Leaders at the Department of Education insisted it was unfair. We didn’t buy their argument, since we based our ranking on official DOE data. (We were mortified to find a computational glitch in the scores for three schools. For that, we immediately apologized and did an online update, still available online.)

Most of the furor, though, had nothing to do with that small math error. It seemed to come from a school establishment uncomfortable seeing the public schools evaluated publicly. Despite the fact those schools cost us all $1.7 billion annually.

We knew, however, from the way the issue flew off the newsstand that the public was hungry for this kind of no-nonsense analysis. That also proved true for the real insiders—principals, teachers and parents laboring at the school level. They took our rankings seriously. And acted.

The list had a huge impact at Aliamanu Middle School. Last year, Aliamanu principal Patricia Park opened our issue and found her school listed among the worst in the state. It was ranked No. 218 out of 256, earning an overall grade of D-.

Park took the magazine article straight to her faculty and challenged them to do better. In a year, Park and her faculty improved student math and reading scores, plus parent, teacher and student satisfaction. Despite all sorts of challenges—including a 30 percent change in student body each year—Aliamanu made huge strides. On this year’s chart, it jumps up 65 places, from 218th to 153rd in the state.

How did they do it? There was no single magic bullet, just a school community determined to get better, working on reading and writing, on teacher development, on having better relations with the parents of its students.

We’re proud to have been a small part of that success.

It wasn’t isolated success, either. We saw the changes principal Gerald Teramae wrought at Aliiolani Elementary School, jumping his school from a C+ to an A-, largely because he focused on results and encouraged his teachers to take risks. At Honaunau on the Big Island, we found a small rural school where both test scores and teacher satisfaction are up with a new, more rigorous curriculum.

 

Finally, we were cheered to find the faculty at Kalani High School, the most improved high school in the state, planning to reinvent its whole curriculum, intending to turn it into a magnet school.

This shows what’s possible. Especially when you take a clear look at where you are and what you’re doing.

Education has been a hot political topic this legislative session. This magazine hits newsstands right before the legislative session winds to end. Almost anything can happen at the end of the session. Still, it looks doubtful that many of the Lingle administration’s school reforms will pass. Instead, we’re likely to see a compromise bill from the legislature’s Democratic majority.

We’re skeptical that any of the political proposals will end the woes of the state’s public schools. There may not be a magic legislative bullet for school reform. But we’re hoping to see greater school autonomy, fewer union and bureaucratic roadblocks to change.

That’s because if there’s a lesson we’ve learned from our annual ranking of public schools, it’s this: All we need to do is challenge the well-intentioned people in the system to do better, and then get out of their way.


 

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