Editor's Page: Back to School

Taking another close look at public education.

Photo: Linny Morris

For students, May means that summer vacation is almost here. For HONOLULU, it’s time to go back to school. Since 2001, our May issues have been devoted to public school coverage. This year, we bring back the full, statewide chart detailing the performance of all 258 schools. We last published this in 2010, taking a detour in 2011 to focus on high schools only.

As always, we combine official Department of Education measures on parent, teacher and student satisfaction with student performance on math and reading tests for an overall score. For the letter grades, we use a good old fashioned curve. Ten percent of schools gets As, 20 percent Bs and so on. The curve is a relatable measure, but one we wouldn’t use if the schools were consistently achieving their goals. It’s possible for every school to score in the 90s, even a perfect 100, if stakeholders were uniformly satisfied, if the students were learning what we need them to learn. These are goals we don’t think anyone would find out of line.

The average score is 69. Just two schools score in the 90s.

There appears to have been progress over the years. In our first chart, in 2003, the average score was about 49. However, year-on-year comparisons are virtually impossible due to the Department of Education’s manipulation of the source data we use, so the chart is best seen as an annual snapshot. As we’ve documented in May 2009, the DOE has artificially improved satisfaction scores in its School Quality Survey by eliminating or rewording the survey’s more pointed questions. The DOE also rewrote its math and reading tests in 2007, as we detailed last May, which boosted scores statewide, while nationally administered tests showed no such similar jump in student performance.

The chart highlights a critical problem in the DOE. The primary argument for Hawaii’s one-of-a-kind, state-run school system is that it’s the only equitable way to deliver quality education to all neighborhoods, rich and poor. Yet despite this promise, we see, year after year, failing schools in poor neighborhoods, higher-performing schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

To show what that disparity looks like in the real world, we offer “A Tale of Two Schools,” by associate editor Tiffany Hill. What separates the schools that succeed from those that struggle? The lowest ranked school, with a score of 52.7, is Nanakuli High & Intermediate, so we knew we wanted to hear from its teachers, administrators and students. For context, we chose to visit, not the No. 1 school, Momilani Elementary, but the highest ranked high school, Moanalua. We felt two high schools would have more in common than a high and elementary school.

No doubt, Nanakuli has unique challenges. What struck us, however, was that the major differences between the schools had more to do with how they are managed, which means, we note with hope, that the DOE has successes it can replicate. We’re grateful to everyone on both campuses who gave us their time.

Hawaii has a long way to go. This year, Education Week’s Quality Counts annual assessment of US schools gave Hawaii a grade of D+ for K-12 student achievement, and a D+ in accountability for quality.

Help us name the Most Endangered Historic Places

The Historic Hawaii Foundation is now accepting nominations for its annual list of the Most Endangered Historic Places list, which we publish in our November issue to call attention to treasured buildings that we might lose to development or neglect. Is there such a building in your neighborhood? Visit historichawaii.org to let them know.