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Our Schools: Has Anything Changed?

In May 2001, we published "The Death of Public School," taking the state Department of Education to task for failing to do its job. It's been five years—has public education gotten any better?


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photo by Jimmy Forrest

In May 2001, HONOLULU Magazine published "The Death of Public School," taking the state Department of Education to task for failing to do its job. By almost any measure, Hawaii schools—the only schools in the nation run by a state government—were broken. At that time:

• Hawaii ranked seventh lowest out of 50 states, with a D- for standards and accountability, an F in school climate, a D in improving teacher quality and a C in adequacy of resources, in the 1998 National Education Association's Quality Counts survey.

• Hawaii students scored lower than students across the nation in a standardized test administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

• The DOE's method of funding its 270-plus schools actually contradicted its stated purpose of funding schools equitably, with some schools in higher-income communities getting more money than those in poorer areas.

• The inequity among public schools was obvious in other ways, from the condition of their campuses to the quality of their teachers.

It's been five years since we published "The Death of Public School." Enough time for more than 50,000 students to have graduated from Hawaii's government-run school system.

Since then, a Republican governor with a new approach to public education was elected. A career DOE worker became superintendent of schools. No Child Left Behind became federal law, requiring that all of the nation's students become proficient in core academic subjects. And, in 2004, the state Legislature created the controversial Act 51, its own version of school reform that would purportedly bring equity to school funding and make the DOE more efficient.

Plenty has changed. But is anything better?


The Big Picture

Every May, we take a hard look at public education in Hawaii. As we point out in every piece, there are outstanding principals, talented teachers, committed parents and motivated students doing the best they can in the system they've got. The system itself is what stands in the way of their success. While they may not enjoy seeing their school's ranking on our chart, we can't think of a better way to improve a government agency than to talk openly about its performance.

We're not the only ones worried about public education in Hawaii. Little has improved in the minds of the DOE's own customers—students and their parents. According to the department's School Quality Survey, satisfaction among those two groups has remained flat over the past three years.

Hawaii residents in general think our public schools have gotten worse, according to the DOE's own 2005 Hawaii Opinion Poll on Public Education, in which 80 percent of respondents gave local public schools a C or below, compared with 71 percent in 1998. The poll also revealed that more residents think Mainland public schools are better than ours. Not surprisingly, they're right.

In the most recent test by the National Assessment of Educational Progress—considered the gold standard for measuring student performance on core subjects—Hawaii ranked among the bottom eight states in the nation. Since 2003, our students have made little or no improvement in math or reading.

Keep in mind that we are placing near the bottom of a nationwide public school system that is itself widely seen as mediocre. In a recent Zogby public opinion poll, respondents of all political stripes agreed that U.S. schools aren't doing their job—only one in five conservatives and one in four liberals think schools are "working well to teach students all they need to succeed in life."

Need more proof that our state DOE still isn't serving all of its students? Consider the recently released results of a study conducted by the Hawai'i P-20 Initiative, a collaboration among the Good Beginnings Alliance, DOE and University of Hawaii. At local community colleges, about 68 percent of incoming freshmen from DOE schools require remedial English courses; about 89 percent need remediation in math.

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