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Editorial | Our View

Education reform may hurt, but it’s no time to be timid

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They call them "growing pains" for a reason.

Reform is coming to a few struggling schools, with the assistance of federal money that can help school leaders plan the changes they need to put students on a better path. But the extra dollars can’t shield schools from the upheaval that inevitably comes with any worthwhile educational overhaul. Nor should Hawaii’s elected and educational leaders shrink from this kind of discomfort, if there’s a decent chance that it could give kids a better chance of academic success.

Three Hawaii schools are on a path to receive a "school improvement grant": Kamaile Academy, a charter school in Waianae; the Hawaii School for the Deaf and the Blind in Honolulu; and Naalehu School on the Big Island. This program, which is separate from Race to the Top grants but which embraces the same drive for innovative reform, is part of the federal stimulus package. Funds are made available to "chronically low-performing Title I schools," meaning those that serve largely disadvantaged children.

All three schools are seeking a grant that compels the school to develop an improvement plan and make some fairly drastic changes, but because the latter two schools already recently changed their top administrators, they can still qualify for a grant without going through that again, Department of Education officials said.

At Kamaile, however, it’s a different story. The school has taken the required step. Officials have decided to dismiss the two chief administrators: the chief executive officer and the principal. This has sparked a protest from some angry school parents who are pleased that the school is at least making modest gains in a key measure required by the No Child Left Behind law: the adequate yearly progress (AYP) score.

But a school shouldn’t accept a modest improvement of a few percentage points if a more productive change is possible. For every year that school leadership decides to settle for taking baby steps, another cohort of children drops further behind and may lose their best chance to excel.

Department of Education leaders have recognized this, long before the Obama administration ever conceived of such school reform initiatives. In the 2009 legislative session, Pat Hamamoto, the former superintendent, unsuccessfully pushed for authority for "reconstitution" of chronically underperforming schools, in which the schools chief would be able to redeploy teachers and administrators so that different teams could be assembled to carry out a program for change. She ran into resistance from unions and, unfortunately, the bill stalled.

The charter school movement does not enjoy uniform success, but the Kamaile episode shows one of its key advantages. Independent boards oversee charter school administration and, in the Kamaile case, a greater capacity for making tough changes is clear.

The school improvement grant program is a welcome opportunity for educators and lawmakers to watch school reform in action, a process that can and should be replicated at more struggling schools. Nobody really likes going through growing pains, but the end result — more effective schools — would be a healthy outcome indeed.

 

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