Does Hawai‘i’s Public School System Need a Revolution?
Education reform. To some, this is an ambitious moon shot intended to transform Hawai‘i’s school system. To others, it resembles lofty projects that never amounted to much. Meanwhile, Island teachers are fleeing the profession. So what’s in store for our 180,000 students this fall?
Photo: David Croxford
It is an oversimplification to say that any two people can represent the recent, white-knuckle ride Hawai‘i’s education system has gone through—and where it is currently headed. And unfair to the nearly 22,000 employees of the Hawai‘i state Department of Education, as well as 17,000 casual hires. But official Kathryn Matayoshi and reformer Darrel Galera* end up passionate education advocates cast as rivals.
A teacher at Moanalua High School in the 1980s, Galera can still vividly remember his excitement in the classroom. “I felt very free to make the decisions I needed to make in terms of curriculum and assessment,” he recalls. After the 2002 passage of a standards-setting national education law, No Child Left Behind, however, Galera, by then Moanalua’s principal, could look across the state and see science and social studies classes de-emphasized, music and art classes dropped. Instead, teachers “taught to the test.”
“I saw immediate change,” says Galera. “Because of the way the accountability systems were designed, it was very punitive. Clearly punitive. For example, Moanalua was considered one of the best public high schools in the state. But NCLB had 37 indicators and, if you did great in 36 and not in one, you were considered a failure.”
Somehow, award-winning Moanalua missed in one category. And under NCLB there were real, immediate and financial repercussions: A school had four years to score a perfect 37, after which its entire staff could be reassigned. At five years, it could be closed permanently or reopened as a charter school.
At some point, Galera decided not to go along. And that would make all the difference.
Over the past seven years, Galera and Matayoshi have found themselves sharing the spotlight in a slow-motion collision of two belief systems that has played itself out in Hawai‘i. Representing careful, bureaucratic evolution is the DOE and its superintendent, Matayoshi, both criticized for being slow to change and dependent on students taking too many tests. On the other side, spark plug of the critical wing, is Galera, acclaimed teacher and principal handpicked by Ige to serve on the Board of Education in October. Though Galera’s loose coalition of educators, consultants, principals and business community leaders dislike hearing the word “revolutionary,” they’re saying that to achieve their dream of a student-centered, principal-empowered system, a lot will have to change in how Hawai‘i educates its children.
In fact, change is already underway, as the U.S. DOE hands off authority to states, de-emphasizes testing and uncouples teacher evaluations from student test-score growth, thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015—a bipartisan bill that unravels much of the past decade’s ever-tightening net of national goals and assessments. That’s what makes this moment a little mystifying. Although Ige definitely wants it, is this revolution really necessary? How much will it cost—not just in budgetary terms, but in disruption of the education of our students?
That’s why every taxpayer, parent and lover of intrigue should be paying attention right now.
Galera’s decision to not go along bore intriguing fruit. “We stopped paying attention to the test; and, guess what, our scores increased.”
Despite NCLB’s arrival, education in Hawai‘i was actually enjoying a brief blooming of creative ferment. Innovation as an agenda gained broad support in 2004, when a Hawai‘i Business Roundtable pushed for the passage of Act 51, the Reinventing Education Schools Act. Then-state education superintendent Pat Hamamoto, a prime mover in the legislation, saw it “unleashing creativity in principals.” Notable among its 13 major elements was an earnest attempt to allocate more funding to schools with the neediest pupils—an attempt to deal with the social equity, have-and- have-not issue.
In 2004, the Hawai‘i Executive Conference invited Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard School of Education, to Hawai‘i. Wagner was already well-known in reform circles. His mantra—“The system is obsolete, and we need to reinvent it, not reform it”—has reverberated in school districts across America.
In Hawai‘i, “I spoke about the new skills all students would need in the 21st century,” Wagner says. “The kind of standardized tests we use today are obsolete. They don’t measure what matters most: Does a person take initiative; can they think critically and effectively?” and other soft skills. In 2005, Hamamoto encouraged six South Kona schools to form their own “community of practice”—“learning and sharing best practices in transforming their schools,” as a white paper would later put it. Out of the urban Honolulu mix, dealing with uniquely Hawaiian issues, the principals and teachers partnered with the Change Leadership Group and Wagner.
Impressed by the South Kona group, Wagner met with and got the support for future visits from Roundtable leaders and Robert Witt, then-executive director of the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools and later co-founder with Nainoa Thompson of Mālama Honua Public Charter School.
Wagner is a believer in change through “buy-in,” not bureaucracy, in teachers and principals owning their problems but also their curriculum. A crisp and vigorous speaker, he’s an able proponent of the education world’s best practices, ideas drawn from schools and districts from Edmonton, Canada, to Finland. He would make many subsequent visits to the Islands, advising several private schools as well as taking part in discussions with Hamamoto and, as it turned out, Darrel Galera. The DOE adopted Wagner’s “three R’s”—Rigor, Relevance and Respectful Relationships. Other Wagner imports are embedded in the DOE’s strategic plan as General Learner Outcomes. The South Kona experiments are a prominently featured case study in Wagner’s influential 2007 book, The Global Achievement Gap.
Certain core ideas, including letting students learn by teaching others, resonated with those who were part of the meetings—especially Galera.
“When I was a student, a couple of teachers really inspired me by having me come up in front of a class to teach the lessons. For a student, pretty wild. I could see the students were more engaged than when the teacher was just standing in front, lecturing.”
Another concept, practically a commandment, was to have students learn by doing. “As a teacher, I was already doing project-based learning,” says Galera. “The teacher next door was wonderful but very traditional; she would try to talk to me: ‘Say, Darrel, your classes are getting maybe too noisy!’”
The NCLB grip grew stronger with 2009’s Race to the Top, which dangled federal dollars in front of desperate states during the economic meltdown. The catch? An aggressive pursuit of improvement on a variety of fronts, including adopting Common Core, a national curriculum.
Then-Gov. Linda Lingle and Hamamoto took the bait, putting then-deputy superintendent Matayoshi in charge of the grueling effort. In late 2009, just as the DOE was about to submit Hawai‘i’s application, Hamamoto resigned amid public furor over Furlough Fridays. The Lingle administration’s answer to easing a budget deficit was to lay off state workers on Fridays, including teachers.
Matayoshi became the new superintendent, replacing Hamamoto. Soon Hawai‘i became one of 12 states to receive a Race grant, for $75 million. “It was both blessing and curse,” says Matayoshi. “You’ve won the grant—but now you have to deliver on all your promises.”
Meeting those Race promises meant an exhausting effort in a state with Hawai‘i’s challenges, which include serving rural and urban areas, families of many different cultures and languages, and a high number, 57 percent, of students defined as high-needs due to economic disadvantages. And yet, the Race seemingly was won. Hawai‘i’s fourth- and eighth-graders were among the nation’s leaders in improving their math and reading assessments.
“When we originally gave [Hawai‘i] the RTT grant, lots of folks doubted our judgment there,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “and said no way they could be successful.” But, “They’ve shown amazing leadership in a relatively short amount of time.”
The gains came at a cost: teacher burnout and principal frustration.
While well-intended, Wagner says, “NCLB and RTT had effects that have been fairly drastic. A lot of teaching to the test, using tests as the dominant means of determining school effectiveness.” Galera chafed at the stalemate. As a principal, he had been doing well by doing things his way—which is to say, letting his teachers do their thing, passionately. Moanalua was selected as a national model school; in 2010, Galera was named principal of the year. It was also the year he retired. Almost his first action was to poll his fellow principals about the DOE and Matayoshi.
The results, published by a new think tank, the Education Institute of Hawai‘i, were not favorable—not a surprise given the survey was taken in 2013, at the height of the No Child/Race rush, when everyone was most frazzled. Matayoshi’s contract in 2014 was renewed, but at BOE meetings, several members wondered why.
Next, Galera formed a task force of educators and community members. A grassroots movement grew up of impassioned parents, teachers, administrators. There was something of a tent-meeting atmosphere, thanks to an unlikely rally point that arrived in the form of screenings of a newly released documentary about education reform, Most Likely to Succeed, also the title of a book by … Tony Wagner.
This time around, Wagner had a co-author: a venture capitalist turned educational entrepreneur named Ted Dintersmith, who mounted a yearlong campaign that energized the educational reform movement across the country.
Drawing from the observation that “our school system was designed in 1893” to provide workers for jobs that no longer exist, the documentary follows a season of experimentation, empowerment, student-centered learning and more at a network of charter schools in San Diego, collectively called High Tech High. At the schools, created by Larry Rosenstock, former director of a U.S. DOE lab school project and bankrolled by Qualcomm CEO Irwin Jacobs, students are selected by zip code to ensure those without economic advantages are fully represented; 74 percent are of color and almost half are on the federal school lunch program. In the film, we watch teachers take a back seat and let students form teams to pursue projects dear to their hearts. Some take charge with alacrity, while others fumble and waste time. Meanwhile, helicopter parents, including immigrants anxious over the possibility that their child might fail and miss the next rung of the ladder to success, wring their hands.
Scenes from public-education documentary Most Likely to Succeed, shot on location at High Tech High, in San Diego
The teenagers’ stories are powerful and their excitement is contagious. The drama builds to a big presentation night, when projects are unveiled. It’s undeniable, the change wrought in students whose faces betrayed stress and passivity at the start: They’ve caught fire.
And, all over America, the audiences at community screenings felt the heat, and the hope.
What Ted Dintersmith did next sounds like one of those montages that movies do so well, but never quite happens in real life.
Only this one did happen. While the film was picking up attention at the Sundance, Tribeca and American Film Institute film festivals, Dintersmith, 64, began barnstorming the country, doing showings and community meetings. He visited all 49 states.
Dintersmith made it here last, in May 2016, in a tour coordinated by former teacher, Josh Reppun. By then, Most Likely to Succeed had screened 300 times in the state, for parents, teachers, the business community and Ige.
On Mother’s Day, Dintersmith sat down with the governor and his wife, Dawn Amano Ige, who not only is a former Moanalua High vice principal but recently spoke at an Education Institute of Hawai‘i conference where Wagner was a featured speaker.
What started as a short meeting stretched to 90 minutes. “We started talking about the power of digital storytelling to illustrate micro-innovations in schools,” says Reppun, “and Ige suddenly got ramped up and animated and talked for 30 minutes about Candy Suiso,” co-founder of Wai‘anae High School’s award-winning student-run creative film and storytelling lab, Searider Productions. “She’s his model for what happens when a brilliant educator with an innovation is supported. From her came so many things.”
What looked like a tipping point turned into a victory lap. By then, Galera was president of the Educational Institute of Hawai‘i; his survey of principals had led to his guiding presence on the governor’s19-member, volunter ESSA Task Force. In the months to come, the task force would segue into drawing up the governor’s education reform blueprint, which was followed by Ige’s appointment of Galera to a seat on the Board of Education. The seat had been hastily vacated by Jim Williams, who, as he left, questioned the constitutionality of the way the BOE and the DOE had been left out of the entire Task Force/blueprint project.
It had taken Galera seven years to reach this moment. His goal had been clear—to encode teacher and principal decision-making freedom into the DNA of the state public schools, while stripping financial and bureaucratic powers from the DOE. Once empowered, the theory is that teachers and principals would run their classes and schools with students as the focus, and drivers, of their own education through project-based learning communities.
“We’re calling it the moon shot,” Galera says. “The goal is, we want Hawai‘i to be one of the top school systems in the country. The goal used to be to increase test scores by a couple of percentage points. This isn’t about test scores. We’re setting the vision.”
In October, one of his first votes as a new member of the BOE, now packed with Ige appointees, was to decline to renew Matayoshi’s contract.
Setting aside the power play stuff, there’s a third party in the debate. A force far more present in the daily lives of our children than the BOE, the DOE, the reformers and all the governor’s team: the teachers.
“You can talk about these lofty goals, but, at the end of the day, you have to make sure the kid has a teacher,” says Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawai‘i State Teachers Association. At the same tumultuous time that the state held out not one, but two, educational plans for the future— one by the DOE and the other by the Task Force headed by Galera—it offered teachers a 1-percent “bonus,” not even a raise, whose average $550 bump was more than offset by an increase in medical plan contributions. In other words: a pay cut.
“Before we went into contract negotiations,” says Rosenlee, “we commissioned a study of how much the average teacher in Hawai‘i is paid compared to other districts of similar size and composition. What we found was our mid-career teachers were $15,000 to $25,000 underpaid, compared to their Mainland counterparts.”
In testimony, Rosenlee has brought along some serious ammunition. “Resignations among Hawai‘i teachers have increased 50 percent the last five years,” jumping from 529 in 2010-’11 to 781 in 2015-’16. To be clear, these are not retirements (352 in 2010-’11, 294 in 2015-’16). “These are teachers quitting to go to another state or to enter another profession.”
Rankings in the past five years have placed Hawai‘i at or near the bottom for teachers. “Last year, we were ranked the worst state in the nation,” says Rosenlee. Every year, Hawai‘i has about 1,600 openings; every year, there are fewer qualified applicants. More and more, the DOE is turning to emergency hires. “A Spanish class may be taught by someone who doesn’t know Spanish, a calculus class by a teacher who has never taken calculus,” says Rosenlee. “This has happened to my daughter three times in the last two years; last year, she went an entire semester without a science teacher.”
Then there’s the pool of substitute teachers, which ends up working fulltime, teaching subjects they may lack expertise in. When that sub pool is exhausted, things get scary. “On the Leeward coast we are using 140 substitute teachers without even a college degree. In our whole system there are 200 without a college degree.”
Perhaps more telling is that the number of Island students pursuing education degrees has dropped. “Local graduates are the group most likely to stay in Hawai‘i, but you see this number decreasing as well, as much as a third. We get only 400 from local colleges now. This is robbing our future.”
It would be great if teachers could be paid more, agree the DOE, the Legislature, the Governor’s ESSA Task Force and just about everyone. “Teachers are frustrated,” says Rosenlee. “That is the core of our educational problems.” Though limited by the ongoing contract negotiations, Galera doesn’t duck the question: “It is low pay. There is not a simple solution. It’s going to take a few years.” But, he adds, “Although people looking at current collective bargaining want a quick fix, if we come up with a clear vision and plan on this,” that is, empowerment and reform, “we may figure out creatively how to elevate the profession.”
One idea? For teachers to pursue national board certification, an exhaustive process of quantifying competencies.
“Once they provide evidence that they’re performing at this very, very high level, and they get this certification, they get a $5,000 bonus for each year,” says Galera. “If all our teachers are national-board certified, people will be willing to pay them more so they don’t have to get a second job.”
The idea that a stressed teacher who’s working a second job might pay up to $2,000 to take on an entirely new agenda of self-improvement somehow seems a stretch. “If people will only buy in and have patience,” says Galera.
Weary of the lack of progress, Rosenlee and the HSTA proposed a state constitutional amendment in January, to levy a surcharge on second homes and hotel rooms that would go strictly to teachers. There appears a slim chance that the idea could go before voters next year. A February march on the Capitol drew a crowd of about 5,000 teachers and supporters.
Education isn’t for the weak at heart, and the past few years have been rough on a community that does try to keep the children foremost in mind.
One thoughtful observer is Kapono Ciotti, longtime principal of the first, flagship charter school, Wai‘alae Elementary. “What concerns me is how politicized it is now, between the executive, Legislature and DOE,” he says. “The gravity point has been Darrel Galera’s vision, which is about principal empowerment and school autonomy. Which is good, but not the whole shebang. It’s not the transformation I would be focusing on.”
Up in the halls of government, where some dreams die and other pet projects survive, Ige’s budget smacked into a skeptical Legislature on its first trip around the block. Given flat tax revenues, legislators scoffed at the fiscal incongruity of several assumptions. One was $10 million inserted for an education innovation fund that hadn’t even been requested by the DOE. At the same time, the budget cut funds for the coordinators of the state’s 3,000 homeless public school students.
What really raised eyebrows, though, was no allowance for public-sector-union raises.
Two weeks after submitting the $28.5 billion two-year budget, a revision came back to the Legislature. Education spending was halved from $700 million; funding for homeless student coordinators was not restored. The $10 million innovation fund, which the DOE had not requested, stayed in.
Both the DOE strategic plan and governor’s blueprint abound with better things: less lecturing, fewer tests, more hands-on. They share common ideas and philosophies, core ideas at the leading edge of educational theory, ones that are popular with teachers and students. But they also can seem vague and hard to grasp; certainly, Wagner and Galera agree, hard to test. This, when coupled by a sharp turn away from testing as the basis of assessment of child, school and teacher, can make reform seem like a case of giving up what’s known for a fuzzy revolution.
“The old way is to say we should just be doing what we’re doing now and doing it better,” says Ted Dintersmith. “That’s led to national policy. If we can just get those test scores up …”
Former ‘Aiea High School principal and current ‘Ewa Makai Middle School principal Kim Sanders, whose earlier career as a teacher sent her around the world teaching for Department of Defense schools from Guam to London, has her own take. “Was NCLB the crushing burden, like people say? I didn’t feel it was,” she says. “I feel testing is important, especially in high school. That’s when they’re going on to college. There has to be some kind of assessment, but I never felt there was teaching to the test.”
At Farrington High School, perhaps the most diverse school in the state, with 20 languages spoken, principal Alfredo Carganilla explains how the teachers discussed empowerment several years ago in their own leadership group: “They said, ‘We’re going to do this. They got a principal from Brockton, Massachusetts, who was doing this to come down, give a talk to schools like us. We took it and ran with it—it’s taken a couple of years, but all of a sudden it’s snowballing, people are collaborating, there is trust. You know everybody, you’re pre-forgiven for failure. Go ahead, be bold, fail, try something else. Now it’s exploding.” On and on he goes, detailing the systems, the challenges, the flexibility, the learning curve, how the small learning community model is being pushed down to ninth graders…
“Things were going in a better direction, from NCLB to ESSA was already a good move,” says Wai‘alae principal Ciotti. “The DOE leadership already had started to embrace a more holistic view of this whole thing.”
All without a revolution, all proceeding under the 2010 DOE strategic plan.
“Look, some won’t like it,” Galera says, “even though it frees them. Freedom can be terrifying.”
It turns out that even revolutionaries can allow themselves an occasional doubt. “This is hard work, what we’re doing. It’s a belief system,” says Galera. “We’ve seen it work. But it’s fragile, this whole education thing. It’s fragile.”
*On March 6, Darrel Galera resigned from the Board of Education after four months and 11 days. At the same time, he announced he would apply for the DOE superintendent spot to be vacated by Kathryn Matayoshi in June. The Castle Foundation then withdrew its $50,000 grant for a superintendent search, citing the integrity of the selection process. More complaints came in from educators, politician and the broader community. Galera withdrew his application and the Castle Foundation restored its funding. In late April, the state and the teachers’ union reached agreement on a 13.6 percent raise over four years. It has been submitted to members for approval.
By the Numbers
Number of newly employed teachers hired without Education Degrees, 2016-2016. (HSTA)
Number of newly emergency hires without a college degree, 2016. (HSTA)
Number of newly emergency hires without a college degree on the Leeward Coast, 2016. (HSTA)
Not So Fast
The case against revolution.
Revolution is chic, it’s sleek. Still, when it comes to the strengths of the current system, outgoing superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi has some pithy thoughts. “One of the strongest arguments for continued testing comes from civil rights groups.” Without tests to show how certain groups in certain districts are doing, it’s difficult to determine discrimination.
Centralization and economies of scale aren’t all bad. “We give principals control over 70 percent of their budget. They don’t want to deal with negotiating and paying for utilities, school buses and meals.” A recent audit shows that schools have not been vetting casual hires, putting children at risk.
Public schools can leverage the experience of teachers and principals across the system. When faced with a sudden influx of Pacific Islander immigrants, “we realized we could turn to Radford High School for ideas on how to ease their transition,” says Matayoshi. Known for its high number of military families, Radford tends to have students who may have transferred “10 to 12 times while following their father or mother’s career.”
In fact, principals email, talk and meet to discuss best practices, teachers form professional learning communities, and the DOE has long held periodic conferences and enrichment days to discuss new ideas and techniques—including many of the ideas called for in the Governor’s Blueprint.
Parents and taxpayers might ask if there isn’t a more measured approach. Both finance chairs in the Legislature bluntly asked, in January, about the wisdom of an all or nothing approach. Ige’s big education initiative last year serves as a reminder: Cool Schools vowed air conditioning 1,000 classrooms and ended up cooling only 164 in the first year.
Students taking and passing AP Exams
Early college program enrollment
CTE Concentrations (2014-2016)
Students requiring remediation in math at the University of Hawai‘i
Students enrolling in college nationwide (in the Fall after high school graduation)
Students requiring remediation in english at the University of Hawai‘i
Teachers Speak Out
Photo: Courtesy of Herman Ishibashi
“Test scores are what the state is looking at. Bottom line! They say, do not teach to the test, however, if you are a teacher who has a testing grade, you will be scrutinized by the administration on the State Evaluation System. If there is no growth, it could affect a teacher evaluation. The curriculum has been mandated by the DOE as far as math and language arts. I feel that we are testing the students to death.”
“I don’t think anyone who is a teacher will be able to afford a house with the type of income we are getting. I was fortunate to have gotten a job at the Four Seasons Hualalai Resort as a banquet porter and server. The money was good but the hours were long and ended late at night or early morning. Sometimes 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. At times, I had a hard time teaching because I was so tired from the night before. Sometimes, teachers don’t really have a life outside of school and this puts a strain on relationships.”
–Herman “Helemano” Ishibashi, Fifth-Grade Hawaiian Language at ‘Ehunuikaimalino in Kealakekua; 20 years experience, 18 with the DOE.
Photo: Courtesy of Aly Tsui
“I have seen no evidence of the DOE creating any kind of culture or programming to empower teachers.”
—Aly Tsui, Seventh-Grade Math Teacher at Wheeler Middle School; two years experience.
Photo: Courtesy of Amanda Seymore
“At a job fair in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), I saw a banner ad, ‘Teach in Hawai‘i,’ on a computer screen for an online job program called teachers.com. There wasn’t even a person. I took an application. Submitted it, never heard anything back until the Tuesday right before school started, when I got an email from ‘Aiea High School. I wrote back to say, ‘I’m in Pennsylvania right now, is there any point?” I had a phone interview Thursday, the principal called two hours later. I packed my bags Friday, flew Friday, moved into a hotel Friday, and started teaching Monday.”
–Amanda Seymore, Seventh-Grade Special Ed Teacher at Aliamanu Middle School; six years experience.
Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Argueta
“I come from a humble family and was the first to graduate from high school and college. I have chosen to give back to the community, families and students, but I am unable to provide for my family back home. This causes me a lot of pain and it has me questioning my purpose. What it affects is my ability to think of the teaching profession as something with longevity. I am a college graduate with an immense amount of student-loan debt. We are seeing too many gifted young people leave this profession because they are unable to see how they will make a life from the paycheck they receive from teaching.”
–Kevin Argueta, Fifth-Grade Teacher at Kahakai Elementary; five years experience.
Reform and the Testing Treadmill
Public K-12 education has been on an ever-faster testing treadmill since 2002, when Congress voted to require states to implement national standardized tests for students and schools. But a backlash set in motion a reform movement to halt a tendency for schools to devote teaching resources to testing at the expense of other programs.
2002: No Child Left Behind (NCLB)
A bipartisan Congress, alarmed by studies showing U.S. students trailing many developed countries, passes a law requiring states to test and rank students and schools.
2004: Act 51, Reinventing Education Schools Act
Even as NCLB tightens its grip, Hawai‘i pursues an education reform agenda, intending to foster project-based learning and better prepare students for the modern world.
2009: Race to the Top (RTT)
In the midst of economic meltdown, the U.S. DOE dangles millions to school districts willing to chase after higher test scores and a national curriculum called Common Core.
2015: Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)
Spurred by backlash against a testing regimen that sapped student motivation and killed off arts, social studies and music programs, Congress replaces NCLB with ESSA, returning educational power to the states.
About 13% of our students fall into more than one group:
Economic disadvantage (92,808)
English Language Learners (13,883)
Special Education and Section 504 (17,373)