Hawaii's schools chief is upbeat, despite new challenges and tight funds
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 29, 2011
Kathryn Matayoshi still can lean on her background in managing large agencies — she was director of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, for starters — but after only a year as schools superintendent, her heart is now clearly in education.
Matayoshi, 53, said not enough news coverage goes to stories about the dedication by principals who turn schools around and by teachers who help push scores up, despite the loss of classroom time during Furlough Fridays. In particular she was affected by how Mike Harano, principal at Washington Middle School, described how it felt being honored in the nation's capital as Hawaii's National Distinguished Principal.
"He said you really feel that you did good, and you're part of this great team," she added. "We should do that, we should cover that, we should say, ‘These are these great principals, they're doing a great job.'"
She blinked away tears: "I kind of get emotional about it because I see how hard they work."
It's been a tumultuous year, and things won't be settling down soon. A new school board will ponder what changes to make in diploma standards and myriad other policies. The state's Race to the Top education improvement project will lack the extra boost that a larger budget could have brought. There's the dread of salary cuts and how that might affect morale, too.
"We're not immune from that, and I think that weighs on people, makes it harder to get through every day," Matayoshi said. "On the other hand, you know, when you look at individual schools, there are schools that are just doing incredible work. They're doing it with this can-do attitude, that has made the best of everything."
QUESTION: How do you think your relationship with the new appointed school board, which is sending signals it wants to avoid “micromanaging,” will change?
ANSWER: It’s hard to say … but I think the emphasis has been focusing on policy, and reviewing the policies and trying to streamline their operations, and spend less time — less of the staff time — at board meetings and more time really looking at oversight and monitoring.
Q: How are the Race to the Top initiatives faring, given the fiscal shortfall?
A: Well, I think the timing is certainly something that we’re looking at, because there were going to be a lot of changes in the department that were going to support the Race to the Top effort. And not having the funding to provide those fundamental supports will make it a problem. Such as: There’s a lot of IT (information technology) structure pieces, data systems that we wanted to improve. And the money to improve those systems, the human resources systems, etc., isn’t there. So we have to figure out how are we going to become that flexible, efficient, focused organization when we don’t have the money to get the tools we need up to speed. So that’s going to be a challenge for us, and it doesn’t mean we’re not going to do it, because it’s the right thing to do, but it does mean we’re going to have to see whether we have to phase things in, in slower chunks.
Q: What limits will the budget cuts set for you?
A: We committed to moving forward on the curriculum piece, on the common core standards, and we’re rolling that out, explaining what the common core standards are. But our professional development money’s gone, our money for training teachers is gone. So we were hoping to take some money that we might get from another program and put it toward training teachers. Now that money isn’t there, either. … We committed to doing more training around data, using data coaches. We have some funding for that, but we were hoping to expand it and the number of data coaches we were able to get out. …
Q: “Data coaches”?
A: They look at the data from schools. … So you install a reading program, and then you start seeing: Are the kids’ reading scores improving? And if they’re not, you have somebody who’s really focused on the data, saying, “Well, I’m starting to see certain patterns in this,” and do some analysis, crossing it with other data, to say, “What’s happening with this? Is the program a good program?” — and make changes. … We were hoping that each school would have someone who could really help them focus on what’s happening in that school community, and really help them structure and change the lesson plans. … And we had a lot about revamping the (teacher) evaluation system. Some of that will be funded by the Race, but a lot of that means integrating it into our human resources system. And that part would have been funded by our operating expense … and we’re in flux, because the budget’s not done yet.
Q: How has everything been affecting morale?
A: Psychologically, I think, it’s hard. People have been looking at salary reduction that’s been in the paper. And I think your morale starts to kind of dip. You start to say, “I’m going to have to figure out how to deal with my family’s reduction in income, and yet I’ve got to do all these new things.” So it gets to be stressful. It gets to be hard to keep the energy positive and moving.
But what I’m kind of inspired by, actually, is that Nanakuli-Waianae, Kau-Keaau-Pahoa — the two zones (targeted in Race to the Top) — they are so positive. They are really believing in themselves, that we can do this. So to me, when I see that, I feel that we gotta make it happen. We gotta support the energy. … And so I kind of feel that, for all the struggles, there’s a lot of inspiring moments.
Q: What can you say about the proposal for a dual-track diploma that the school board approved?
A: We’re still trying to figure it out, looking at the minutes that the board’s staff’s still working on. So I don’t have a lot of analysis done yet. I’m just wanting to see what the final product is, and then take a look at it. It’s confusing. … There were amendments, and they were done verbally. So what we’re wanting to make sure is, what exactly happened? And so, I think the new board will take a look at it, too, and make sure.
Q: What do you hope to see happen in the updating of the No Child Left Behind law, whenever Congress takes it up?
A: One, the kind of punitive nature — of labeling schools for failing to hit one cells out of the many cells that are tested — I think needs to change. … So you have a school that struggled for a long time, and now they see a huge gain, but they still missed the mark by this much. Now they’re labeled as “failing,” disregarding all the progress that the teacher and the principal and the staff had made. And that’s demoralizing; it’s not incentivizing, the work that they did. So I think that more than anything, the reliance on a single test to judge the worth of a school and the staff and its students is really not fair and certainly not going to move us toward doing a better job.
Q: Didn’t other states test a “growth model,” to have schools judged by their improvement instead?
A: The growth model is actually what is in our Race for measuring student achievement, for the purpose of evaluating teachers and principals. It’s a movement that the U.S. DOE (Department of Education) is supporting. But what’s interesting is there is no model out there that’s widely accepted. … You start with somebody who’s reading at the third-grade level, and in one year you get them to the sixth-grade level; they’re in eighth grade. You’re not there yet, but you’ve sure done a heck of a job to move them up. And that’s what you want to encourage … because then in the next year they’re going to be that much closer to being on level.
Q: On the other hand, isn’t the elevation of graduation standards also raising the bar? Or is that different?
A: I think it is; it’s not a punishment, you know, to raise the bar. … We’ve got a few years to help these kids get up to grade-level proficient. … I think part of setting that bar is really saying: This is where we need to be if we want our students when they graduate from high school to have that piece of paper really mean “I’m ready for the rest of my life. I’m ready to go on to community college, or a four-year college or a trade school, or get a job. I can do these things.” And I think that’s pretty important.
Q: What has it been like, running schools, equipped with your business orientation?
A: Well, I think that’s going to be one of the issues that the board members will face. Running schools and being on a school board is very different from being on a nonprofit board or a for-profit board, because everybody has an interest in schools. When I was DCCA director, on Cabinet, dealing with similar kinds of issues — much smaller — not as many people cared about banking regulations, securities regulation, professional vocational licensing, cable television. … That level of interest has got to be part of what positively motivates us to become a true part of this community, a true driver of innovation, and all that stuff. … It’s really about driving this state toward a sense of a community that is vibrant, that has families who not only can support themselves, but contribute. That whole civic vitality thing from way back, you know? A vital, vibrant, civic society. That’s the end. We’re all part of the pyramid building up to that.
Q: Do you like this career?
A: I like it. It’s kind of funny but I always think that, you know,you get tired, but it’s actually fun. And what I mean by “fun” is not like going-to-a-circus fun; it’s fun because you work with good people, committed people. You get that camaraderie, facing a challenge and succeeding, finding a solution. And it’s fun … and people are happy when things work out. And I get a kick out of that.