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"The Death of Public School": Ten Years Later


(page 4 of 4)

DOE superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi has high hopes for the Race to the Top reforms ahead.

Photo: Mark Arbeit

New Reform, Same Challenges

The state’s Race to the Top reform promises are sweeping, and follow an aggressive timeline. Some proposals, such as closing the student achievement gap or having all students be proficient in reading and math by 2018, seem flat-out unrealistic. It’s easy, even for people in the system, to get lost in Race-to-the-Top project proposals. Hawaii’s scope of work submission runs 69 pages (not including the appendixes) of single-spaced, color-coded tables, listing individual Race to the Top initiatives. On top of that, most of the projects are interdependent—if one gets delayed, or doesn’t materialize at all, it affects several others. “There’s a lot of moving parts,” says Bob Campbell, the executive assistant for school reform, a four-year Race to the Top position.

Even in a best-case scenario, there’s a real concern as to whether the state will be able to afford all these reforms. Hawaii’s current budget crunch is already threatening existing programs, as well as stalling such simple reforms as the law passed last year to increase the minimum number of instructional hours.

Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi admits that Race to the Top’s $75 million won’t be enough to cover the cost of its reforms. “When you look at the overall size of the department, and the kinds of changes we’re planning, we knew that it would not be all that is required,” she says. “It’s money that we’re going to use to leverage the reform. It’s catalytic. But it’s not everything.”

Project delays are popping up already. The DOE was supposed to present its new college-and-career-ready high school diploma requirements to the BOE for approval last July—it’s now been pushed to this November. And this past December, the department should have posted the English language arts and mathematics curriculum framework on the DOE website. Now it won’t get posted until July 2012, pending the development of the Common Core State Standards. So far, the DOE has asked for more time for eight of its projects.

“This is the difference between planning and reality that plays out in any endeavor,” says Campbell. “It was a very aggressive timeline. Reality has struck home with certain things.”

One of the issues most likely to highlight the gap between planning and reality is that of teacher evaluations. Hawaii has promised to revamp how it rates teachers, principals and complex-area superintendents, tying their performance to student achievement. It’ll also have to evaluate them every year. (Tenured teachers currently get evaluated as infrequently as once every five years.)

This is the biggest single component of the Race to the Top initiative, with more than $30 million of Hawaii’s Race money devoted to covering the cost of evaluations and incentives. It’s also a subject that has been touchy, historically. The HSTA has long resisted attempts to tie teachers’ evaluations to the performance of their students.

The HSTA has signed on to the idea of a teacher evaluation system that includes student’s HSA scores, end-of-course exams and interim assessments, but it’s important to note that the actual details still need to be negotiated. As Act 51 demonstrated, it’s easy for big promises to get whittled down by compromises, arguments and heel dragging.

“It’s not rocket science,” says Randy Roth. “I don’t see much being accomplished. If the parties at the table were committed to following through on what we said we would do when we applied for the money, it would be done by now. This isn’t that complicated. If it takes months and months to even start the conversation, what does that tell us? Someone doesn’t want to give in, period. And in the meantime, the kids are getting shortchanged.”

The HTSA is currently negotiating its contracts for the state’s 11,408 teachers, but this does not include Race to the Top contract provisions. That will be a separate negotiation, says Okabe; neither he, nor anyone else we spoke with, could tell us when those initial discussions will happen. The Race to the Top proposal calls for a finalized collective bargaining agreement covering Race to the Top provisions by March 2013.

Abercrombie says he’s confident that negotiations will go well. “They all understand that I’m not a rookie in any of this and that I have been straightforward and as direct as I possibly can be,” he says. His relationship with the unions certainly won’t be as combative as Lingle’s was; he has also promised no more furloughs during his campaign and while in office.

However, during negotiations for the HGEA’s new contract this April, Abercrombie won a 5 percent pay reduction only by giving state government workers an additional nine vacation days—furloughs by another name.

“Let’s face it, the unions are right in the middle of what needs to be done,” says Roth. “They’ve not given any indication of wanting to change anything other than increasing the compensation and benefits of their members.”

Speaking with the HSTA president, it’s easy to get the impression that attitudes haven’t changed much since the recent furlough fiasco. Not only will Okabe not rule out the possibility of future furloughs—“That’s part of negotiations, and we are still in discussion about all of those things”—he also says that, if he had the Furlough Friday negotiations to do over again, he would do nothing different. “We were in a pickle, in a corner,” he says. “There was nothing we could have done in that situation.”

In any case, it won’t take long to see if the unions, the department and the board follow through on their good intentions. Three years from now, in 2014, Race to the Top funding will have ended. By then, according to the DOE, student proficiency in reading should have increased to 90 percent and 82 percent in math. The student achievement gap should have been closed by 50 percent. And in 2014, teachers should be working under performance-based contracts. That’s the promise being made to you, the public, right now.

Today’s 10th graders were in first grade when we published “The Death of Public School.” Nearly their entire K-12 years have been spent in a system that has ranked among the lowest in the nation. Will the same be true of this year’s first graders?

“Kids don’t get a second chance. A principal gets a chance to repeat as principal. If they’re not good at something, they get to try again,” says George. “A student doesn’t get the chance to repeat seventh grade again. They lost that chance. We can’t afford to lose these kids, because it’s just criminal.”


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