Ready for the Real World?

Why Hawaii’s public education system isn’t doing enough to prepare your kids for life after high school.

Photo by Sergio Goes

As chairman of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, whose members include CEOs of the state’s largest companies, David Carey hears lots of stories about how hard it is to find qualified workers. Local executives who hire recent high school graduates are often frustrated at how many of them lack basic communication skills.

“Our view is that our public school graduates as a whole are underprepared,” says Carey, president and CEO of Outrigger Enterprises. “We find, among Business Roundtable companies, that the writing skills of a lot of our public school-educated prospective employees are simply not up to what the business community would expect. That’s a big problem, particularly in a tight labor market.”

The Business Roundtable isn’t the only group worrying about how unprepared Hawaii children are for life after high school. Today, more students than ever are graduating from Hawaii’s public schools without the skills they need for either college or the workforce—an alarming trend that has educators and employers statewide scrambling to fill the void between what students are taught in high school and what is expected of them by colleges and employers.

Consider the number of public high school students who actually pursue higher education. Out of 100 ninth graders in Hawaii public schools, only 65 will even graduate within four years. Of those, only 34 will go to college, according to the Hawaii P-20 Initiative, an alliance of public and private sector educators.

Hawaii is far from alone in its turnout of ill-equipped graduates. As many as 40 percent of American high school graduates say they aren’t prepared for the demands of either college or work, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Achieve Inc. The organization also polled college instructors nationwide, who estimated that two out of five college students are not adequately prepared by their high schools. Employers surveyed were just as critical, estimating that 39 percent of recent entrants into the workforce were unprepared for entry-level jobs.

Many factors determine what kind of adults our children will become. The 2007 Quality Counts study produced by Education Week actually measures how a child’s potential for success is affected by where he lives. The study created a “chance-for-success index” for each state based on 13 indicators that correlate with later career success, including academic performance from grades K to 12, family income, parental employment and educational attainment. The study concluded that in Hawaii, a child’s prospects are better than in half of the nation’s states.

Of the 13 indicators, Hawaii ranked above the national average in nearly every category, except in the achievement of its public school students. Based on test scores from the National Association of Education Progress, better known as the “nation’s report card,” Hawaii ranked one of the worst in the nation—47th out of 50.

The results probably did not surprise anyone who’s seen headline after headline about Hawaii’s dismal standardized test scores and the growing number of schools failing to meet goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—failures that Department of Education (DOE) officials and legislators often blame on students’ low-income backgrounds. But the Quality Counts study demonstrates that Hawaii’s demographics are no more challenging than those of other states, and our public education system drags down students’ chances of success in life.


In a press release, Education Week editor and publisher Virginia Edward said, “Smart states, like smart companies, try to make the most of their investments by ensuring that young people’s education is connected from one stage to the next—reducing the chances that students will be lost along the way or require costly remedial programs to acquire skills or knowledge they could have learned right from the start.”

Hawaii is not one of those states. Most kids don’t even realize how much they’ve been shortchanged by the public education system until after they’ve graduated. A majority of recent graduates—65 percent of those in college and 77 percent not in college—say that, knowing what they know now, they would have worked harder in high school, according to a nationwide survey by Achieve Inc. What’s more, eight out of 10 say that they would have worked harder, had their high schools demanded more of them.

Photo by Sergio Goes

Adelina Reyes
College Student
University of Hawaii at Manoa

After graduating from Pearl City High School, Adelina Reyes took advantage of UH Manoa’s College Opportunities Program (COP), which helps students who don’t meet the college’s minimum admission requirements gain admission. The program puts students through an intensive, six-week summer program that includes classes on writing, history and college-survival tips. Through COP, Reyes got a head start over other incoming freshmen. “I got all A’s in English in high school, but that’s because the classes I had weren’t that challenging,” she says. “I thought I was so good at writing, but when I came to my first COP class, I realized how different college writing was from high school. It helped me find out where my weaknesses were.”

Ready for College?

Last March, more than 60 educators, counselors and program directors gathered at the Hawaii Convention Center for the first time to discuss ways to get more kids into college and to keep them there. Attendees were all members of the Hawaii College Access Network, an association of the many programs created to fill in the gaps in student preparation left by the DOE.

Before introducing the keynote speaker, Linda Johnsrud, University of Hawaii vice president of academic planning and policy, addressed the crowd. “We have always been interested in enrollments for the sake of enrollments,” she said. “Today we need to think in terms of Hawaii and the state. Access [to college] with success is about the quality of life for all of Hawaii.”

Many public school students don’t even qualify to get into UH Manoa, which accepts nearly 70 percents of its applicants. The university requires most first-year freshmen to have scored 510 in each of three sections of the SAT. Last year, the average public school student scored only 460 in reading, 484 in math and 448 in the new writing section.

Of all of the organizations calling for the DOE to better prepare students, the UH system is the one doing the most about it. Its incentive is not just to boost enrollment numbers, but also to reduce the number of first-year students who need to catch up. More than 60 percent of public school graduates in the UH system require remedial reading classes. At the community colleges, which have no academic requirements, most recent high school graduates need remedial courses—68 percent in English and 89 percent in math.

Students who struggle through classes in their freshman year often get discouraged and drop out. Remember the 34 out of 100 ninth graders who will make it to college? Only 22 will return for their second year, and only 12 will earn a degree within six years.

Even students who arrive on campus with stellar high school transcripts aren’t always ready for college. No one knows that better than Mike Maglaya, director of the UH College Opportunities Program. The program helps students who don’t meet the university’s minimum academic requirements gain admission into UH Manoa. His office reviews more than 300 applications each year and selects 75 students who will get the rare second chance at admission into the university, regard less of their transcripts and test scores.

Certain public schools are more likely to give students A grades for work that might be considered mediocre in other schools, Maglaya says. He’s seen local valedictorians flunk out of college.

“Some schools are known for grade inflation—nobody wants to touch that, but it’s a reality,” Maglaya says. “We see a lot of students who get As in English for four years, but their application essay is like sixth-grade writing—why is that? We’re seeing more and more of that. A lot of people look good on paper, but there’s a disconnect between what’s on paper and their actual ability.”

Ready for Work?   

Most public high school students will skip college for the workforce, but the outlook for those graduates is no brighter than that of their college-going classmates.

 “If you look at jobs that pay well, many require college education,” says Michael Rota, UH associate vice president for academic affairs. “But you can get a living-wage job that doesn’t require college education. The issue is that if students aren’t prepared with the right set of skills in high school, they’re not prepared to go on to college or work.”


Photo by Sergio Goes

Hawaii Carpenters Union
Apprenticeship Program

In 2004, around 40 percent of applicants to the Hawaii Carpenters Union’s apprenticeship program flunked its entrance exam—an eighth-grade level math test. Union head Ron Taketa says recent high school graduates are often surprised that math skills are essential to the trade. The apprenticeship program includes this class on metal house framing, where student A.J. Luis (center) is learning his trade.

Employers have had to come up with ways to compensate for what the DOE didn’t teach kids in the 13 years it had them. Take the Hawaii Carpenters Union, which, in 2004, launched its biggest recruitment drive in years for new apprentices. Applicants were eligible if they had a high school diploma and passed an eighth-grade-level math test, which  focused mainly on basic functions—addition, subtraction, multiplication and division—and fractions and decimals.

Forty percent of applicants flunked the test. But rather than eliminate nearly half of its potential new members, the union created a remedial math class to prep applicants for the test.

“It’s not our role to fill in these gaps for the DOE,” says the union’s financial secretary and business representative, Ron Taketa. “But given the fact that you face huge shortages of qualified people, do you wait for the DOE to change? Or do you do what you gotta do to make sure your business stays afloat now?”
Taketa feels that students who don’t plan to go to college get the least benefit out of their high school educations, a gripe shared by many employers around the state. Schools need to do a better job of exposing all students to a range of career possibilities, he says. 

“The school system does not help orient them to what jobs are available in the community and the kind of skills they’ll need for gainful employment,” Taketa says. “Learning needs to become more relevant to what they’re doing in the competitive world, as opposed to sitting in a class and getting ready to take a test in the absence of any practical application.”

Most trade jobs don’t require applicants to be college educated, but many do require on-the-job training beyond high school. Applicants are often surprised at the level of complexity and technology in today’s blue-collar occupations, which require workers to master much more than just the hammer and nail.
At the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1186, ideal candidates would have taken Algebra II and III in high school, because electrical calculations often involve trigonometry and quadratic equations. But the union can’t afford to raise its minimum math requirement above Algebra I, because many applicants fail to meet even that standard.

“The level of applicants we’re seeing, especially on the Neighbor Islands, is pretty sad,” says Gerald Yuh, IBEW’s business representative and financial secretary. “They think they’re going to work in air-conditioned buildings and change light bulbs, and that’s far from the truth. When you’re putting up multimillion-
dollar high-rises, you’re working out in the hot sun and the level of understanding necessary to decipher engineering specifications and blueprints is very, very high.”

Graduates who realize they don’t have what it takes for the workforce often enroll in community college. The community colleges specialize in teaching skills students didn’t acquire in high school, says Rota. Anyone age 18 or over can enroll; they don’t even need a high school diploma.

“Students who come to the community colleges tend to be a few years older than first-year students at UH Manoa,” he says. “They’ve run into the reality that they don’t have a set of skills to make them employable as apprentices or to go into a company training program.”

What Is Anyone Doing About It?      

If so many graduates leave high school unprepared for college or work, what is a Hawaii diploma even worth? For all this talk of standards-based education in the DOE, many local employers dismiss a high school diploma as nothing more than a certificate of attendance.

“For the most part, after the fifth grade, the Hawaii public schools are very much like a day care versus an educational institution,” says local advertising executive David Rolf, a longtime proponent of a uniform, more rigorous curriculum for all DOE schools. “An educational institution would have a specified curriculum and would have a central objective, but we don’t have anything like that.”

The state is finally starting to ask itself what a high school diploma should mean for all 11,000 students who graduate from its public schools every year. Last year, the DOE, UH, Gov. Linda Lingle and the Business Roundtable signed on to the American Diploma Project (ADP), a national effort to help public school systems close the gap between high school requirements and post-graduation expectations. The project helps states align the curriculums of high schools and colleges to improve the transition.

 “In the DOE, there’s a flood of info, explaining things soup to nuts—what this does is strip a lot of that away and ask, ‘What is the barest minimum a student needs to get out of high school?’” says Kathy Jaycox, interim director of the Hawaii P-20 Initiative. “Employers and college expectations are virtually identical, so if we’re saying high school graduates should be college- and work-ready, it’s only fair to high schools to tell them what college- and work-ready means.”

While the state tries to figure out how to make a Hawaii high school diploma more meaningful, individual schools have already implemented their own ideas. Several high schools have changed not only what they teach their students, but how they teach them.   


Photo by Sergio Goes

Gail Awakuni
High School Principal
Campbell High School, Oahu

Over the past six years, Campbell High School principal Gail Awakuni has led one of the most dramatic curriculum redesigns in the state. One of the school’s most successful programs is AVID (Advanced Via Individual Determination), which helps students who fall in the academic middle get into college. In 2005, Awakuni, pictured with some of the school’s AVID students, was recognized as the National High School Principal of the Year.

Campbell High School in Ewa Beach has undergone one of the most drastic school redesigns in the state, working toward a curriculum that is both rigorous and relevant to students. During her six years as principal of the school, Gail Awakuni has expanded Campbell’s Advanced Placement program, opened its honor program to any student interested in signing up and switched the students to a new bell schedule, allowing them to earn eight credits instead of the traditional six. The school now requires all freshmen to take Algebra I, the highest math class required in most other schools. Students who can’t keep up in core classes get a double dose during the school years, thanks to the school’s flexible schedule.

Like many local high schools, Campbell has created smaller academies to help freshmen and sophomores feel less lost in a school of 2,000 students. During junior and senior years, students are divided into smaller learning communities. These groups are based on what the state calls “career pathways”—business and health services, industrial and engineering technology and arts and communications.

“Going down the traditional road, wasn’t working,” Awakuni says. “We want to make it more rigorous and relevant to the real world so we can hook them in instead of losing them.”

Schools across the country have replaced their one-size-fits-all curriculum with career pathways, not only to help students explore potential careers but also to reduce dropout rates by teaching kids things that actually interest them.

At least 13 Hawaii schools have implemented career pathways, funded by federal grants. These courses aren’t the vocational education classes that baby boomers remember as shop class; students study core subjects such as math and English by learning how to apply them in the workplace. Many public and private entities across the state help create real-world experiences—credit unions have set up branches for students on campus, businesses have provided mentors and elementary schools have allowed high school students to serve as teachers’ aides. Starting last year, Honolulu Community College, has helped schools establish construction academies. Lingle has also proposed academies focused on science, technology, engineering and math.

The DOE would like all high and middle schools to implement career pathways, but several principals and teachers have already opposed the change, saying it is too much, too soon.

Awakuni disagrees. “That’s what we call high school redesign—you can’t just tinker if you want to see big results,” she says. “We already have our results.”

In 1999, Campbell had the lowest graduation rate in the state, between 70 percent and 80 percent, Awakuni says. Today, it’s 98 percent. Over that same period, the school experienced a 220 percent increase in the number of students taking AP classes. And last year, 74 percent of its students went on to college, earning $6.5 million in scholarships, compared with $600,000 five years ago.

In 2002, Campbell High School became the first Hawaii school to implement AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a federally funded program that helps students who fall in the academic middle (a GPA of 2.0 to 3.4) go to college. Most students would be the first in their families to attend college. Many come from low-income backgrounds.

The program requires them to take rigorous classes, including at least one AP class; teaches them college skills, including note-taking and organization; and encourages critical thinking. During tutoring sessions, for instance, students must clearly articulate their questions and work with classmates to come up with the answers.

Last year, Campbell had proof that the AVID program was working. The first class of 18 AVID students graduated, and all went to college, earning $500,000 in scholarships. Like many educational reformers across the nation, Awakuni believes that most students can and should do well in school. That’s another way that she distinguishes herself among others in the DOE.

“Kids are like sponges,” she says. “Once you open the door, there’s no turning back. Kids are very adaptable, very amenable to change. It’s us adults who aren’t.”
Stories like Campbell’s are still the exception rather than the norm in the DOE. Because each school is left to its own devices, the most ambitious principals, like Awakuni, must work around the system, rather than within it.

What the gap Means for Hawaii       

The failure of Hawaii’s public education system to prepare kids affects more than their individual futures; it hinders the success of the state as a whole. With continued job growth and the retirement of baby boomers, Hawaii has more than 22,000 job openings annually. Local public and private colleges combined awarded only 9,850 certificates and degrees in 2003—less than half of the skilled workers needed, according to Hawaii P-20.

“The implications aren’t good,” says Carey, of the Hawaii Business Roundtable. “It means you’re going to have a large population that can’t earn the kinds of wages that it takes to live in such a nice place. It means we’re not going to attract the right kind of job mix to the Islands. Or worse, we’re going to have to import people from other places to fill those jobs.”

At Enterprise Honolulu, a nonprofit focused on economic development on Oahu, president and CEO Mike Fitzgerald worries about how Hawaii can attract more tech companies when it can’t promise the quality workers ready to staff them. He points to the company Web site of downtown Honolulu-based Oceanit, considered one of the local tech industry’s best success stories. On any given day, the Web site lists openings for more than a dozen skilled workers, including engineers, accountants and planners.

“Our economy is going to be no better than the capability of our high school graduates,” Fitzgerald says. “In the global economy we’re in now, every place has two choices: Either we educate our people by world standards or we subsidize them. Because if they can’t command living-wage jobs, they’re going to need some kind of subsidy—training, housing, medical care—and it’s ongoing.”

What happens to graduates who aren’t prepared? They get left behind.


Over the past two decades, the demise of the plantation era and the push to create more knowledge-based industries, such as technology, have magnified the DOE’s shortcomings. A generation or two ago, many high school graduates could find jobs that allowed them to buy a house and raise a family. Today, graduates who lack education or training beyond high school will probably earn less than those with college experience. Nationally, a high school graduate earns a median weekly income of $554, compared with $672 for workers with associate degrees and $900 for those with bachelor’s degrees, according to a 2003 Bureau of Labor Statistics study.

Despite the economic reality, plantation-era perceptions linger today. Only 41 percent of Hawaii residents consider a college education “absolutely necessary,” according to the People’s Pulse survey conducted in 2006 for the Hawaii Business Roundtable and the Pacific Resource Partnership. Half of respondents—51 percent—said a college education was “helpful but not necessary.”

“Low-skill jobs are being replaced with jobs that have higher requirements for reading, writing and arithmetic,” says Rota. “We got a whole set of changing work requirements and expectations that the schools haven’t changed quickly enough to meet.”

Today’s high school graduates are expected to change professions, not just jobs, at least five times in their lifetimes, according to the Hawaii Workforce Development Council. That puts a premium on skills—critical thinking, computer literacy, communication skills and so on—that will be valued in any field. 

There’s no good reason Hawaii students can’t learn everything they’ll need for success in the real world. It’s just that our public school system isn’t set up to help them. 

“People’s ability is so superior to the kind of education we’re providing them—it’s almost dumbing them down,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s worse than obsolete. It’s turning people off to learning.”