Making the Grade

This year, we hand out the grades. How does your child’s school measure up?

Photo by Linny Morris

Universal public education is one of the best ideas civilization has ever had. Done right, it provides everything a functioning, modern democracy needs—literate, competent citizens; a shared civic culture; capable entrepreneurs; skilled workers; confident thinkers, able to later build on what they know to become surgeons or engineers, lawyers or poet laureates.

On top of those lofty ideals, Hawaii’s approach to public education—a single, statewide district of government-run schools—adds some more good intentions, such as guaranteeing that every student receives the same quality of education, whether that student is rich or poor.

This month, we offer two major features that measure the gap between these ideals and their actual execution by Hawaii’s state Department of Education. The first, “Grading the Public Schools,” details, for nearly every public school in the state, exactly how well the students at each school are doing in math and reading, as well as teacher, parent and student satisfaction at each school. This is drawn entirely from official DOE data.

In the second feature, “Our Schools: Has Anything Changed?,” associate editor Ronna Bolante updates an article I wrote for the May 2001 issue, “The Death of Public School.” Five years is a nice, round number; more than that, it’s a significant chunk of time for any organization. Here, Bolante reexamines the problems we identified in 2001, checking to see if the DOE is doing any better on national ranking, student performance, governance, fiscal accountability and more.

photo by Jimmy Forrest

I don’t want to give away Bolante’s findings here. Instead, I wanted to emphasize why we do these articles in the first place, because every time we do, we get some comments to the effect that this is just negative coverage that only makes the people in the school system feel bad. What the schools really need is support, we’re told.

Students, teachers and parents absolutely need support in their pursuit of an education that serves them. What we criticize in these articles is the performance of the people who are supposed to make that happen. Governors, lawmakers, board of education members and unionized civil servants, all of them organized in a department of state government no more deserving of operating in secret than the attorney general’s office or the parks department. They take our trust, our tax money and, for many of us, our children for six hours a day. We all expect certain things in return, such as progress, competence, if not outright success, and accountability.

When you get to a certain age, you can start to count the number of governors and superintendents who have promised us an education system second to none. I remember Gov. John Waihee making such promises when I was a public school student in the 1980s, reading even then the headlines that Hawaii’s schools ranked among the worst in the nation. The Big Fix is always right around the corner. Just hang in there a little longer. That was 20 years ago, and today our schools still rank near the bottom in the nation.

Maybe our public schools coverage does make some people uncomfortable. But the performance we’re seeing—virtually unchanged even after five years of unusually intense local and federal scrutiny—is nothing to be comfortable about.

Speaking of discomfort: Alert readers will notice not one, but two, short articles in Calabash this month about disasters, with information on how you can help people recover. The mudslide in the Philippines and recent weather woes throughout our state remind us that it rains on everyone, sometimes a little too much. In both cases, I’m sure anything you can do to help will be appreciated.