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Principals’ accountability call should extend to them, too

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When you ask the local education establishment what ails Hawaii’s public schools, the stock answer is not enough money.

So it’s significant that principals, who arguably know the schools and the system better than anybody, gave a different answer.

When a recent survey asked more than 200 principals what’s most needed to improve the Hawaii school system, more funding finished down the list behind better leadership and vision from the Department of Education, improved communication between the DOE and the schools and highly qualified and effective teachers.

In other words, throwing more money at the schools without addressing persistent management and personnel problems won’t get us to the goal everybody agrees on — greater student achievement.

The principals believe our schools could improve even when budgets are tight if we had better management that puts the right people and the right resources in the right places.

The survey was conducted by the Principals Planning Group, a coalition formed to fight a move in the Legislature to chop their work year — and pay — from 12 months to 10 months.

The group has since emerged as a major voice for school reform, and members say they’ve held productive talks with acting Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and the teachers’ union.

Principals are the most important players in fixing our schools by any model of education reform, and it’s good to see the best of them stepping up to lead.

It’s a different scene from 2004, when principals were all but invisible as the Legislature debated Act 51 to "reinvent education."

They mostly hid behind their union to protect their own benefits while lawmakers fashioned a largely unsuccessful plan to give principals more direct control over spending at their schools.

This time, they’re out front and their main issue is reforming the teacher tenure system that they say breeds an unhealthy complacency.

Principals want more flexibility to hire teachers who best suit the needs of their schools and to be less bound to a seniority system that often results in younger teachers who fit their schools being bumped by more senior teachers who don’t.

Matayoshi and the Hawaii State Teachers Association are open to addressing the principals’ concerns in upcoming contract negotiations, but working out the details will be thorny.

It would help if principals shored up their credibility by accepting more accountability of their own; they’ve doggedly resisted coming out of the safety of their union — even for substantially more pay — or being put on performance contracts with teeth.

In the recent survey, principals overwhelmingly supported more accountability for teachers, but were relatively lukewarm on performance contracts for themselves.

The most effective leadership is by example.

David Shapiro can be reached at or


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