Following a period of disgrace resulting from teacher furloughs, Hawaii’s school system has been rewarded by the federal government for its plan for reform. The $75 million economic stimulus award over the next four years for its successful "Race to the Top" bid should put the state’s schools on the right track toward much-needed improvement.
Earlier this year, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan denounced as "mind-boggling" Hawaii’s decision to shut down schoolrooms for 17 days, resulting in the nation’s shortest school year. Yesterday, he said of Hawaii and other winners of the competition, "The creativity and innovation in each of these applications is breathtaking." Hawaii, he said, "absolutely put its best foot forward."
In the end, Hawaii not only was among nine states and D.C. named as winners of federal funds, it scored the third-highest in points and easily showed the most improvement from the first round, when it ranked 22nd and out of the money. Hawaii also is the only second-round winner west of the Mississippi.
When Hawaii was included earlier this month among the 18 states and the District of Columbia as finalists in the second-round competition, Kathryn Matayoshi, Hawaii’s interim schools superintendent, declared that the state is "one step closer to maximizing the opportunities for out public school system." Achieving the goals of the reform plan will not be easy.
Hawaii’s blueprint, conforming with a four-point reform condition of the Obama administration, was presented in Washington, D.C., last month by a five-member team headed by Matayoshi and including Al Nagasako, head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association. The latter is significant because the union has opposed teacher evaluations for years, and the federal mandate includes "recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most."
The fervent hope is that with participation and cooperation – in contrast to the recent contentiousness between the teachers union and state administration – real, meaningful reform will occur to benefit the students.
Goals by the Obama administration – but not part of the reform conditions – have included expanding the number and quality of charter schools, which are part of public
systems but managed by groups at arm’s length from school boards and largely free from traditional school work rules. Matayoshi testified to the Legislature this year against expanding Hawaii’s charter schools.
The Hawaii plan includes improving the system to help make educators aware of what students have learned and what needs to be retaught from kindergarten through high school, and turning around "struggling schools," also among the Obama goals.
The directive for these millions of "Race to the Top" dollars awarded for the Hawaii schools plan is that they be spent on its components; they cannot be diverted to other school operations. Adherence to that requirement promises to make the goals achievable. That is the real pinnacle at the end of the race.