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Ready for the Real World?

Why Hawaii’s public education system isn’t doing enough to prepare your kids for life after high school.


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Photo by Sergio Goes

As chairman of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, whose members include CEOs of the state’s largest companies, David Carey hears lots of stories about how hard it is to find qualified workers. Local executives who hire recent high school graduates are often frustrated at how many of them lack basic communication skills.

“Our view is that our public school graduates as a whole are underprepared,” says Carey, president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises. “We find, among Business Roundtable companies, that the writing skills of a lot of our public school-educated prospective employees are simply not up to what the business community would expect. That’s a big problem, particularly in a tight labor market.”

The Business Roundtable isn’t the only group worrying about how unprepared Hawaii children are for life after high school. Today, more students than ever are graduating from Hawaii’s public schools without the skills they need for either college or the workforce—an alarming trend that has educators and employers statewide scrambling to fill the void between what students are taught in high school and what is expected of them by colleges and employers.

Consider the number of public high school students who actually pursue higher education. Out of 100 ninth graders in Hawaii public schools, only 65 will even graduate within four years. Of those, only 34 will go to college, according to the Hawaii P-20 Initiative, an alliance of public and private sector educators.

Hawaii is far from alone in its turnout of ill-equipped graduates. As many as 40 percent of American high school graduates say they aren’t prepared for the demands of either college or work, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Achieve Inc. The organization also polled college instructors nationwide, who estimated that two out of five college students are not adequately prepared by their high schools. Employers surveyed were just as critical, estimating that 39 percent of recent entrants into the workforce were unprepared for entry-level jobs.

Many factors determine what kind of adults our children will become. The 2007 Quality Counts study produced by Education Week actually measures how a child’s potential for success is affected by where he lives. The study created a “chance-for-success index” for each state based on 13 indicators that correlate with later career success, including academic performance from grades K to 12, family income, parental employment and educational attainment. The study concluded that in Hawaii, a child’s prospects are better than in half of the nation’s states.

Of the 13 indicators, Hawaii ranked above the national average in nearly every category, except in the achievement of its public school students. Based on test scores from the National Association of Education Progress, better known as the “nation’s report card,” Hawaii ranked one of the worst in the nation—47th out of 50.

The results probably did not surprise anyone who’s seen headline after headline about Hawaii’s dismal standardized test scores and the growing number of schools failing to meet goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—failures that Department of Education (DOE) officials and legislators often blame on students’ low-income backgrounds. But the Quality Counts study demonstrates that Hawaii’s demographics are no more challenging than those of other states, and our public education system drags down students’ chances of success in life.

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Honolulu Magazine March 2019
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