Why We Cover Public Schools The Way We Do

I spoke recently on a panel about public education at this year’s Hawaii Book and Music Festival and got an earful from several angry, passionate public school teachers and/or their supporters about our May “Grading the Public Schools” issue.

They issued some strong challenges and, figuring that if a handful of teachers are saying this in public then many more might be saying it to themselves, we thought we’d address their critiques.

“This whole article is an attack on the poor!”

I’m not sure if this challenge came from a teacher or not, but we’ll take it on.

No, of course it is not an attack on the poor.

The school system is based on the progressive promise of equal educational opportunity for rich and poor alike, and we absolutely believe in that mission too. Yet the DOE’s own measures show the lowest satisfaction levels; the lowest math and reading scores in the most economically challenged neighborhoods. Wealthier neighborhoods have also typically received superior school facilities compared to poorer neighborhoods.

When we point these things out and insist that the public schools live up to their promises, we aren’t attacking the poor. We’re defending them. Class stratification in Hawaii is perpetuated, not by our reporting, but by a school system that allows these disparities to continue, year after, in direct opposition to its mission.

“This isn’t even journalism! These measures you’re using, they don’t tell us anything about what’s really happening in the schools!”

Really? Math and reading scores don’t tell the public anything meaningful about what’s happening in the schools?

The state’s public education establishment defines its own goals, creates its own curricula, hires its own staff—and creates its own tests to measure performance. The sources we use in our Grading the Public Schools chart are the very same measures the DOE releases to the public. We combine the DOE’s School Quality Survey with the math and reading test scores in a way that is unique to our analysis, but the scores themselves are what state leaders said the public can use to judge the system’s performance.

If there is a teacher out there who doesn’t like the state’s math and reading tests, don’t complain to us; tell your principal, tell your superintendent, tell the DOE and the BOE.

However, on behalf of the public, for whom we report, these math and reading scores are the closest the DOE comes to accountability. We get it—teachers find standardized testing to be stifling. But if the tests accurately tell the public whether or not the kids can read, add or subtract; what exactly is so wrong with judging the schools by the scores of its own students?

“We do our best, but there’s no support for what we do from the parents. It all comes down to the parents.”

We agree that involved, committed parents create better students and make a teacher’s job easier.

However, we don’t have a public school system to educate the easy kids.

We extract $2 billion in taxes from the citizenry to pay for public school, we make attendance in school compulsory, we make the public schools the single largest enterprise in state government specifically to be a safety net for the hard cases. Remember? That’s the progressive promise of free, universal public education in America: That a good education and all the opportunities it affords would no longer be restricted to the rich, the loved and the lucky.

There are parents out there working long, long hours to get by in Hawaii (and to afford the taxes that pay for the education system) and they don’t always have time to help with the homework. There are parents out there who themselves can’t read. Parents who can’t speak English. Parents with problems of their own. Parents who just don’t care. In the hardest cases, there are parents who aren’t backing up the teacher because that parent is in jail, or strung out, or too busy abusing their kid to run through the spelling flashcards that night.

Like it or not, teachers, some of these parents can’t give you the help you’re looking for and never will. That’s why the public hired you, so someone would be there to educate these kids.

“Your chart gets an F because you mislabeled the math and reading scores.”

This one didn’t come up at the Hawaii Book and Music Festival but we’ve been hearing it in correspondence from teachers and principals.

It isn’t easy or pleasant to have ones performance assessed publically. However, every person in a government job agrees to that scrutiny, whether by reporters or by private citizens, as part of taking on our trust. As journalists, we submit to that scrutiny every month, too, with every word we publish in print or on the Web and yes—this month, that scrutiny uncovered that fact that we inadvertently swapped the labels of two columns in our Grading the Public Schools chart, which we announced as the issue was hitting newsstands. Reading scores were labeled as math, math scores were labeled as reading.

We’re detecting from people within the DOE an attitude that they can discount the entire chart because of this mislabeling. We know that every time we do these charts and articles, entire buildings full of DOE employees scour every word and figure, looking for the mistake that will let them say, “See! These guys don’t know what they’re talking about!” Some years they find one.

But swapping the labels on two columns does not affect the rankings; it does not mitigate what the test scores show us about student proficiency in math and reading statewide; it does not change the satisfaction levels of the parents, teachers and students with their own schools; it does not make Hawai‘i’s poor standing, compared to nearly every other state in the nation, just conveniently disappear.

In all of our public school reporting, we represent the public and its interest in the school system it owns. In our charts and articles on the public schools, we have never asked the schools to achieve anything they didn’t themselves promise. We have never used a measure that wasn’t first created by the state school system itself to measure its own progress. Many in the DOE don’t think so, but we all want the same thing; the best possible public schools for all of Hawaii’s children, for the betterment of all of Hawaii.

This is not just a local issue, it’s a national issue. All of America ranks poorly in educational outcomes compared to other developed nations. We’re at a critical point where both sides of the political spectrum, left and right, are seeing the same problem and the same solution to it: what we’re doing isn’t working.

It has to change.