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Feds to gauge DOE reforms

Budget cuts and union talks pose obstacles to improvements required by a $75M grant

By Mary Vorsino


A federal team will visit Hawaii this week to check on the state's progress in implementing ambitious Race to the Top reforms at a time when the state Department of Education is hammering out union agreements to meet key pledges and facing big budget reductions that could slow improvements.

State officials will have positive news to report, but will also highlight some considerable challenges, during the first visit of the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top team, nearly one year after Hawaii was named one of 10 winners in a second round of awards for the highly competitive grants. The state's payout is $75 million over four years.

A recent state Education Department progress update noted Hawaii has already made good on several key Race pledges, including adopting rigorous national standards for math and language arts and giving teachers new data tools to track student progress.

But the update also pointed to several challenges, such as the department's difficulty in pushing through tougher graduation requirements; mounting budget cuts, including a $32.8 million budget reduction over the next two fiscal years; and ongoing labor negotiations.

The DOE is negotiating a labor contract with teachers for the upcoming two school years, and is also seeking agreements needed to meet key Race to the Top goals, including for teacher evaluations based in part on student growth.

The department has pledged to launch performance-based teacher evaluations this fall in "zones of school innovation" — Oahu's Leeward Coast and the Kau-Pahoa area of the Big Island, where the state's largest numbers of persistently low-performing schools are found.


As part of Race to the Top reforms, Nanakuli High School adopted the New Tech program for 150 incoming freshmen in the school year that just ended. New Tech, a nationally recognized program that stresses math and science, is designed to encourage critical thinking through group learning, where students act as problem solvers and teachers are "facilitators."

Over the past year, there were some significant improvements:

» Students in the New Tech program had a 94 percent attendance rate. For the previous six years, the average attendance rate for freshmen at the school was 78 percent.

» Students in New Tech made an average of two years of growth in reading. (Math growth was not measured but anecdotal gains were noted.)

» Fewer students failed the ninth grade. In the past, about a third of ninth graders did not advance to the 10th grade. In the New Tech group, that portion shrank to 18 percent.

Source: State Department of Education


Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said she is committed to the Race reforms, but added that a number of factors beyond the department's control could push back targeted dates for meeting goals.

At the meeting with federal officials, "We're going to reaffirm that we believe these are the right things to do. That said, we've always said the budget (situation) doesn't help us. We have to get more creative about it," Matayoshi said.

The DOE has already received federal approval to amend completion dates for several — mostly small — Race requirements, including the adoption of tougher graduation requirements.

The more rigorous diploma was rejected by the elected Board of Education, which instead voted in favor of a two-track system. The requirements are now being re-examined by the appointed BOE.

The superintendent is also pushing back plans to lengthen the instructional day in "zone" schools, in part because union agreements are still pending. The DOE had hoped to offer a longer school day for children in the zones in the upcoming school year.

The Race visit Monday and Tuesday of representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's implementation support unit is the latest scheduled this month in Race to the Top states. The closed meetings are designed to get a handle on education reform plans nationwide. (The U.S. DOE will issue state-by-state progress reports this fall based on the visits.)

Last August, Hawaii was named among nine states and the District of Columbia as winners of the second round of Race to the Top grants. Hawaii started spending its $75 million in Race funds in March, but kicked off reforms earlier as part of a statewide effort to boost student achievement, improve teacher effectiveness and turn around persistently low-performing schools.

Some of the positive news likely to be highlighted in the Race meetings will center on work at Nanakuli High, where freshmen in the school year that just ended made big improvements in attendance, reading and passing rates.

The progress is linked to the New Tech program, adopted for Nanakuli High's freshman class for the first time last year. New Tech, a nationally recognized school improvement model, stresses project-based learning, in which students act as problem-solvers and teachers as facilitators.

In New Tech's first year at Nanakuli, students had a 94 percent attendance rate, from the high 70s to low 80s historically. They made an average of two years of growth in reading. And fewer students failed ninth grade: 18 percent of the 150-member freshmen class will have to repeat, down from a third in previous years, according to the DOE.

Diana Agor, Nanakuli vice principal, said the school was "pleasantly surprised" by the improvements.

"We were hoping for drastic results, but we were also preparing ourselves for reality," she said. "For me, besides the numerical and the academic data, there's something that's not measurable (that's improved) and that's the culture, just the feeling of community and family."

Nanakuli, which has the state's lowest graduation rate and some of its lowest test scores, is on the state's priority list for school turnaround under Race to the Top.

This coming school year, a new crop of freshmen will be part of the New Tech program along with sophomores in the original class. Eventually, the entire school will follow the model.


The Department of Education has pledged to boost student achievement, turn around low-performing schools and improve teacher effectiveness as part of its Race to the Top reforms. A DOE progress report details what the department has accomplished and what lies ahead:

Major Achievements

» Common Core standards: Hawaii joined 47 other states and the District of Columbia last year in adopting a uniform set of English and math standards that all students should learn.
» Online assessments: In the school year that just ended, students for the first time took annual state tests online -- a change that allowed students who weren't proficient in math or reading to take the assessment up to three times.
» Union commitments: Labor unions have agreed in concept to many of the Race to the Top goals, including adopting teacher evaluations that are linked to the academic growth of their students.
» Community outreach: The DOE has forged new partnerships with the private sector, including Kamehameha Schools, to boost student performance. Schools and complex areas are also increasing their interactions with communities as a way of improving parent involvement.

Biggest Challenges

» Diploma standards: The adoption of tougher graduation requirements has been a difficult sell for the department, which had hoped to have the diploma approved by fall 2010. Before it was dissolved, the elected Board of Education went against DOE recommendations and approved a two-track diploma system. The new appointed board has taken up the issue again and committed to one diploma while at the same time expressing concerns over how tougher standards will affect struggling students.
» Longer school days: The DOE planned to lengthen the school day in its two Zones of Innovation, where the state's lowest-performing schools are found. But in May, the superintendent said that wasn't materializing for the upcoming school year because of shrinking budgets and ongoing union negotiations.
» Union agreements: Behind closed doors, the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the DOE are trying to hammer out a long list of agreements, including a contract for the upcoming school year. The DOE is also trying to move forward on side agreements to allow such things as performance-based evaluations for teachers in the zones.
» Funding reductions: The DOE is grappling with a $32.8 million funding reduction for the coming two fiscal years, and is bracing for more cuts. The superintendent has said she anticipates budgetary restrictions will almost certainly push back key Race to the Top implementation goals.


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