"The Death of Public School": Ten Years Later

Illustration: Sol Linero

In 2001, Hawaii’s schools were in bad shape, by almost any measure you’d care to mention, and had been for a long time. The story struck a nerve with a frustrated public, and HONOLULU Magazine has looked at public education annually since then.

After a decade of coverage, has anything gotten better? A lot has happened, of course. More than 100,000 students have graduated from the system. We went from a Democratic governor to a Republican one and back again. The federal No Child Left Behind law mandated that all students be proficient in core academic subjects. Locally, the Reinventing Education Act attempted to rectify funding inequities and make the DOE more efficient. And a 2009 standoff between Gov. Linda Lingle and the Hawaii State Teachers Association led to the Furlough Fridays debacle, which painfully reduced what was already one of the nation’s shortest instructional schedules.

There are also a lot of plans brewing right now. We’ve got an all-new Board of Education, selected by the governor instead of by voters, and a shiny new federal grant program called Race to the Top, which promises to dramatically boost student performance and eliminate our achievement gap.

Here’s what these latest new ideas are up against: a decade’s worth of reform and rhetoric that hasn’t made much of a dent.

  • By the most reliable national measure of math and reading ability, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Hawaii’s students have remained among the worst in the U.S. in both math and reading. In 2000, our eighth graders ranked 45th in the nation in mathematics. In 2009, they ranked 44th. In reading, they went from dead last to 44th place.
  • Graduation rates have also remained virtually unchanged in the past decade—78.9 percent in 2001, 79.3 percent in 2011. (The rate is an optimistic one, using the Hawaii DOE’s own methodology. Education Week, the national paper of record when it comes to education, pins our graduation rate at 65 percent, 38th in the nation.)
  • The percentage of our students earning college degrees hasn’t gone up at all. In 2000, according to The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, only 13 out of every 100 Hawaii ninth graders managed to graduate from high school on time, go directly to college, return for their second year, and graduate within 150 percent of program time (three years for an associate degree, six years for a bachelor’s). By 2008, that number had actually dropped to 12.5 ninth graders per 100.
  • The performance gap that existed in 2001—the gulf between students at rich schools and those at poor public schools—has not yet been closed. Both Native Hawaiian students and disadvantaged students lagged about 10 percent behind their peers in their 2010 HSA math and reading scores. And looking at our annual “Grading the Public Schools” rankings (page 107), it’s not hard to see the relationship between a school’s geographic location and the achievement levels of its students. High schools in Mililani or Salt Lake can expect about half their students to be proficient in math. In areas such as Waianae and Nanakuli, it’s often fewer than one
    in five.
  • In 2001, we found that the hands of principals and complex-area superintendents were tied by collective-bargaining agreements when it came to personnel decisions. A decade later, ineffective teachers are still protected by byzantine due-process regulations that can take up to two years to carry out, leaving them in the classroom in the meantime. And the restrictions on making needed changes still exist on every level, from the principals all the way up to the superintendent. This legislative session, for example, is the third one in which the DOE has pursued a bill that would allow the superintendent to dismantle and rebuild schools that are demonstrably failing.

Children and parents protest the loss of school days to Furlough Fridays.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Education Matters

Shuffling Numbers

Looking at the Hawaii DOE’s own stats, you might come away with a more optimistic view of the situation. According to the Hawaii State Assessments, our state’s primary indicator for academic performance, 49 percent of Hawaii’s students tested proficient or better in math in 2010, and 67 percent were proficient or better in reading—a jump of almost 30 percentage points from 2004.

The DOE is happy to take credit for this improvement—its Race to the Top application last year touted a doubling in the percentage of students proficient in math between 2003 and 2009. Unfortunately, that’s not a real-world performance gain—the DOE modified the format and content of its HSA test in 2007, which led to an immediate bump in test scores.

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Education Matters

Looking at standardized NAEP scores, things are a lot less rosy. In 2009, the most recent year for which NAEP has results, a mere 25 percent of Hawaii’s eighth graders were considered proficient or above in math. In reading, it was 22 percent. To be fair, Hawaii has made modest improvements in its NAEP scores over the past decade, but we’re still at the back of the class, nationally.

The HSAs aren’t the only instance in which the DOE has moved the goalposts.

Take, for example, its annual School Quality Surveys, which measure how satisfied teachers, parents and students are with their school’s performance in various areas. In 2003, 61 percent of teachers, 64 percent of parents and 54.4 percent of students reported being satisfied with their school, overall. By 2010, those satisfaction numbers had uniformly jumped above the 70th percentile.

You could easily consider this a solid win, except that, as we discovered in 2009, the DOE decided to eliminate or rephrase more than 70 survey questions in such a way as to make them less personal to the survey taker, less specific and less active in construction. Simply changing the statement, “If I could, I would go to a different public school,” to “Overall, this is a good public school,” for example, was good for a 50-percent year-over-year improvement for that item at Farrington High School in 2009.

Even the DOE’s Hawaii Opinion Poll on Public Education, which gauges the public’s attitudes toward government education in Hawaii, has been reworded in ways that give more positive results. In 1998, 71 percent of respondents gave local public schools a C or worse. In 2005, a full 80 percent of respondents gave a C grade or worse. By 2008, though, the DOE had stopped asking for a letter grade. What used to be a C was now labeled “satisfactory,” and suddenly the DOE could say that 67 percent of the population was “satisfied” with the quality of Hawaii’s public schools.


Don Horner, CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, is the chair of the new, appointed Board of Education.

Photo: Courtesy of Don Horner

Education Reinvented?

Of course, there have been more concrete efforts at reform. The most ambitious one in the past decade has been the Reinventing Education Act, popularly referred to as Act 51. Created in 2004, it pulled together a laundry list of reform ideas that were supposed to, among other things, eliminate the inequalities between rich and poor districts, and give principals more control over their own school budgets, while requiring more accountability from them. Expectations ran high.

Seven years later, the verdict on Act 51 is mixed. Terrence George, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of longtime education-proponent Castle Foundation, says he’d give the program a B-minus or C-plus. “It did not put principals on a performance contract. It did not truly give principals control over 70 to 90 percent of their budget. … It was not a strong enough reform, and it did not have clear goals.”

Certain provisions of the Act did make a positive difference, says George. The law set aside money to create a principal’s leadership academy, giving the DOE more resources to mentor and coach principals. It created a set of school community councils, which offer a way to get input from the general public.

Most notably, Act 51 helped cut the DOE’s backlog of repair and maintenance 45 percent in 10 years, from $720 million in 2001, to $392 million this past September—a function of increased allocations from the state Legislature, as well as the transfer of repair and maintenance functions from the Department of Accounting and General Services to the DOE, reducing bureaucracy.

On the other hand, Act 51’s core concept, a weighted student formula that based a school’s funding level on individual student need, rather than enrollment, was quickly compromised and hobbled. As soon as specific schools faced the prospect of reduced funding, schools complained, and the DOE ended up creating separate funds of additional cash that canceled out the intended impact of the reforms.

Randy Moore, the assistant superintendent of the DOE’s office of School Facilities and Support Services, says, “The blow has been cushioned, and continues to be cushioned. We still have not migrated to a complete weighted student formula, without supplements, or subsidies.” The issue, he says, is the unwillingness to weather the transformation that’s required by budget reshuffling. “It’s always painful,” he says. “Money at the school level translates to adults on the payroll. If you have less money, that means some adult needs to go.”

Change is difficult at the best of times, and the DOE’s sheer size and inertia have made meaningful improvement a seeming impossibility. Don Horner, the new chair of the Board of Education, is well aware of the obstacles ahead of him. Compared with his experience in the private sector as the CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, he says that government work is constrained by regulations, bureaucracy and layers upon layers of upper and middle managers. “Sometimes in all of those processes, the student gets forgotten, and the employee gets forgotten,” Horner says. “I do not view the state of Hawaii as a very good employer in regard to the way they communicate and train and support their employees.”

Randy Roth, a UH law professor and education reform proponent, says that in the years he’s been following education in Hawaii, he’s become skeptical of the perpetual promises.

“It’s such a large enterprise, and so many people are involved, and so many of them are competent, well-intentioned and working hard, that I hate to say what I’m about to say. But when you look at the issue from a high altitude, not judging individual teachers or principals or superintendents, I don’t see where public education in Hawaii has progressed at all in the past 10 years.”

Despite the year-over-year stagnancy of our school system, it took the loss of 17 instructional days to furloughs during the ’09/’10 school year to really grab the attention of the public. “It struck me as unfathomable that teachers of young children would say, ‘If you’re going to pay me less, I’m not going to show up as much,’” says Roth. “It put a spotlight on just how bad things have gotten. It was just so clear that children’s interests were the first to go out the window. When politicians had to pick between children and the union, the winner was clear.”

In a spectacular example of looking on the bright side of things, HSTA president Wil Okabe says furloughed students actually benefited from being home with their parents, instead of at school: “If you noticed, with the furloughs, the [2010 HSA] test scores went up. And the reason they went up is that the parents were engaged with the students to be able to support the teachers.”

For the past 10 years, we’ve observed that the adults responsible for this system seem remarkably untroubled by its failings. Interviewing Okabe, we asked him whether we should be worried that Hawaii is 44th in the nation in math and reading. His response: “I don’t think so. I think we should be looking for the 21th century of how we’re going to prepare our kids to be able to engage in the working world. We’re not like any other state.”


What’s next?

Hawaii’s public-education system hasn’t gotten much better in the past 10 years, but it hasn’t been for lack of promises and action plans. Today, in 2011, the Department of Education is fired up about a number of reform initiatives. There is a plethora of programs and changes on the horizon, too new to have been put into practice yet. If anyone expects changes over the next 10 years, they’ll be looking for them to come from these ideas.

This past November, 57 percent of voters checked “yes” to having the governor appoint the members of the Board of Education. While those who opposed it argued that it would strip voters’ rights, with the Furlough Friday debacle still fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s likely that most voters just wanted something—anything—different.

It’s too soon to tell whether the governor’s board will be any better, but education stakeholders are hopeful. Many of us have had the experience of looking at the slate of BOE candidates on the election ballot and not recognizing any of the names, not to mention their credentials. The elections came across as awfully low-stakes, given that the board oversees a $1.3 billion budget, and deals with a hugely complex, bureaucratic system.

“I think there was a concern that a vast majority of individuals were not looking closely at BOE elections and making educated decisions,” says Sen. Jill Tokuda, the chair of the Education Committee.

Compared with the old board, the new BOE lineup is notably business-savvy and boasts a diverse set of backgrounds: chair Don Horner is CEO of First Hawaiian Bank; Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui, until recently the CEO of YWCA Oahu; Jim Williams, the vice-chair of Voyager Public Charter School; and Brian DeLima, an attorney and former Hawaii County Council member.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie says, “I picked these folks based on the variety of resources they brought to the table, all of which had, as an underlying premise, their capacity to understand what organization is all about … the ability to carry through on that without micromanaging. This is a real board, not a management team.”

In short, Abercrombie takes direct responsibility for the board’s success or failure. The new structure also means that there is a more direct chain of command between the governor and the board, as well as between the board and the superintendent, the DOE and the Legislature.

“I would also hope it unifies some actions in regards to education,” says Tokuda. “so that you don’t just have a governor’s agenda, a Board of Education’s agenda or a legislative agenda on what should be done for our schools.”

Education leaders are calling for the board to take a more proactive approach in their governance. “I think the defining factor is going to be when they develop a new vision for where Hawaii’s school system needs to go,” says George. “They’ll likely be holding themselves and the system accountable for achieving that vision.”

Horner says that the new board will spend less time on policies, and more time on strategy, while ensuring that execution of its strategies happens in a timely manner.

First on the agenda, he says, is an audit of the board’s policies, to see what it can delegate. Everything the board does is on the table; the audit will establish which of the BOE’s responsibilities the superintendent should carry out, and vice versa. Horner says the long overdue audit sends a clear message to the other education entities—things are changing. He pledges that the board will hold the Department of Education more accountable, especially when it comes to the Race to the Top initiatives. Even how the board conducts itself is being retooled; it will be “more businesslike,” he says. The board meetings will be shorter and less frequent, and will no longer be held in school cafeterias, as they have been, traditionally.

On a national scale, Hawaii is following in line with how other states organize their boards of education. Maryland, which boasts the country’s top public-education system, also has a governor-appointed board (see “The Maryland Lesson,” last year’s public schools feature, in our May 2010 issue).

Like other states, Hawaii faces a dwindling budget, which means the new BOE has some tough calls to make. “Over the last three years, much of the easy decisions were made, and now we’re down to making the difficult ones,” says Horner. Specifically, cutting $110 million from the existing budget over the next two years.

“I’m under no illusion that this is going to be an easy change, particularly when we have the budgetary woes that we do,” says George. “But sometimes change is easier to make when the situation is dire. When you get the right kind of leaders, who see crisis as an opportunity to open conversations that would have been deemed unthinkable in easier times, you get people stepping up to the plate.”

Racing to the Top?

The Department of Education finally had something to celebrate this past August, when it scored $75 million in federal funds as part of the Race to the Top program. The U.S. Department of Education awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia funding—through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—to reform their public-education systems. The grant—a figure based on the size of our student population—will be distributed over the next four years.

“It was a huge accomplishment for Hawaii, especially since we were coming from so far behind as a result of the Furlough Fridays,” says Tokuda. “I’m very hopeful. Getting Race to the Top, having an appointed board system come into play, it’s kind of like the stars are aligning.” Tokuda isn’t alone in her thinking. Everyone we talked to was excited and optimistic about the potential for system-wide transformation; Race to the Top is being billed as the education reform for Hawaii.

While most of the programs are still in the conceptual stage, with the timeline of implementation subject to change, the projects are specific. A little more than $8 million is going to student performance assessments, around $10 million is going toward a longitudinal-data system that tracks student performance from preschool through college and $7 million goes to streamlining the organization of the different departments. The two most heavily funded reform areas are implementing performance-based contracts for teachers and principals—more than $30 million—and providing targeted support to low-performing schools. These schools will receive a $19 million shot in the arm, and include schools along the Waianae Coast and in Pahoa on the Big Island. These areas have been dubbed the Zones of School Innovation; the DOE wants to roll out many of the Race to the Top initiatives in these areas first.

It’s true, the state’s Race to the Top proposals—which comprise more than 1,000 pages—look good on paper. Hawaii followed federal guidelines in crafting its applications for the targeted grant program, explaining how the DOE would whip itself into shape in four major reform areas, including by improving teacher and principal quality, developing standards and assessments, turning around low-performing schools, and developing data systems to track student achievement.

At a glance, one could mistake the Race to the Top initiatives for No Child Left Behind reforms. While Race to the Top is separate from NCLB, the overall goals—establishing standards-based reform with measurable targets, bringing in highly qualified teachers, improving low-achieving schools—are virtually the same.

The difference is the approach. NCLB has for 10 years been the law of the land, mandatory for all 50 states—and still is—while Race to the Top is a targeted grant program that benefits only the states that won. Will a carrot work where the stick hasn’t?


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.”