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"The Death of Public School": Ten Years Later


(page 1 of 4)

Illustration: Sol Linero

In 2001, Hawaii’s schools were in bad shape, by almost any measure you’d care to mention, and had been for a long time. The story struck a nerve with a frustrated public, and HONOLULU Magazine has looked at public education annually since then.

After a decade of coverage, has anything gotten better? A lot has happened, of course. More than 100,000 students have graduated from the system. We went from a Democratic governor to a Republican one and back again. The federal No Child Left Behind law mandated that all students be proficient in core academic subjects. Locally, the Reinventing Education Act attempted to rectify funding inequities and make the DOE more efficient. And a 2009 standoff between Gov. Linda Lingle and the Hawaii State Teachers Association led to the Furlough Fridays debacle, which painfully reduced what was already one of the nation’s shortest instructional schedules.

There are also a lot of plans brewing right now. We’ve got an all-new Board of Education, selected by the governor instead of by voters, and a shiny new federal grant program called Race to the Top, which promises to dramatically boost student performance and eliminate our achievement gap.

Here’s what these latest new ideas are up against: a decade’s worth of reform and rhetoric that hasn’t made much of a dent.

  • By the most reliable national measure of math and reading ability, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Hawaii’s students have remained among the worst in the U.S. in both math and reading. In 2000, our eighth graders ranked 45th in the nation in mathematics. In 2009, they ranked 44th. In reading, they went from dead last to 44th place.
  • Graduation rates have also remained virtually unchanged in the past decade—78.9 percent in 2001, 79.3 percent in 2011. (The rate is an optimistic one, using the Hawaii DOE’s own methodology. Education Week, the national paper of record when it comes to education, pins our graduation rate at 65 percent, 38th in the nation.)
  • The percentage of our students earning college degrees hasn’t gone up at all. In 2000, according to The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, only 13 out of every 100 Hawaii ninth graders managed to graduate from high school on time, go directly to college, return for their second year, and graduate within 150 percent of program time (three years for an associate degree, six years for a bachelor’s). By 2008, that number had actually dropped to 12.5 ninth graders per 100.
  • The performance gap that existed in 2001—the gulf between students at rich schools and those at poor public schools—has not yet been closed. Both Native Hawaiian students and disadvantaged students lagged about 10 percent behind their peers in their 2010 HSA math and reading scores. And looking at our annual “Grading the Public Schools” rankings (page 107), it’s not hard to see the relationship between a school’s geographic location and the achievement levels of its students. High schools in Mililani or Salt Lake can expect about half their students to be proficient in math. In areas such as Waianae and Nanakuli, it’s often fewer than one
    in five.
  • In 2001, we found that the hands of principals and complex-area superintendents were tied by collective-bargaining agreements when it came to personnel decisions. A decade later, ineffective teachers are still protected by byzantine due-process regulations that can take up to two years to carry out, leaving them in the classroom in the meantime. And the restrictions on making needed changes still exist on every level, from the principals all the way up to the superintendent. This legislative session, for example, is the third one in which the DOE has pursued a bill that would allow the superintendent to dismantle and rebuild schools that are demonstrably failing.

Children and parents protest the loss of school days to Furlough Fridays.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Education Matters

Shuffling Numbers

Looking at the Hawaii DOE’s own stats, you might come away with a more optimistic view of the situation. According to the Hawaii State Assessments, our state’s primary indicator for academic performance, 49 percent of Hawaii’s students tested proficient or better in math in 2010, and 67 percent were proficient or better in reading—a jump of almost 30 percentage points from 2004.

The DOE is happy to take credit for this improvement—its Race to the Top application last year touted a doubling in the percentage of students proficient in math between 2003 and 2009. Unfortunately, that’s not a real-world performance gain—the DOE modified the format and content of its HSA test in 2007, which led to an immediate bump in test scores.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Education Matters

Looking at standardized NAEP scores, things are a lot less rosy. In 2009, the most recent year for which NAEP has results, a mere 25 percent of Hawaii’s eighth graders were considered proficient or above in math. In reading, it was 22 percent. To be fair, Hawaii has made modest improvements in its NAEP scores over the past decade, but we’re still at the back of the class, nationally.

The HSAs aren’t the only instance in which the DOE has moved the goalposts.

Take, for example, its annual School Quality Surveys, which measure how satisfied teachers, parents and students are with their school’s performance in various areas. In 2003, 61 percent of teachers, 64 percent of parents and 54.4 percent of students reported being satisfied with their school, overall. By 2010, those satisfaction numbers had uniformly jumped above the 70th percentile.

You could easily consider this a solid win, except that, as we discovered in 2009, the DOE decided to eliminate or rephrase more than 70 survey questions in such a way as to make them less personal to the survey taker, less specific and less active in construction. Simply changing the statement, “If I could, I would go to a different public school,” to “Overall, this is a good public school,” for example, was good for a 50-percent year-over-year improvement for that item at Farrington High School in 2009.

Even the DOE’s Hawaii Opinion Poll on Public Education, which gauges the public’s attitudes toward government education in Hawaii, has been reworded in ways that give more positive results. In 1998, 71 percent of respondents gave local public schools a C or worse. In 2005, a full 80 percent of respondents gave a C grade or worse. By 2008, though, the DOE had stopped asking for a letter grade. What used to be a C was now labeled “satisfactory,” and suddenly the DOE could say that 67 percent of the population was “satisfied” with the quality of Hawaii’s public schools.

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