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Posted on: Thursday, February 1, 2001

Second Opinion
'No excuses' for Island schools

By Cliff Slater

We have just reviewed yet another survey of public education comparing the various states. For this one, the Manhattan Institute scored the states on the options they grant parents in choosing schools for their children.

It reviewed parents’ ability to legally change schools, such as moving to an alternate nearby school district or obtaining a geographic exception. It measured whether, and how much, within each state, support was available to parents for sending their children to private schools.

It reviewed the availability of charter schools and the strength of the legislation supporting them. It also scored each state by the ease with which they allow parents to home-school their children.

The aggregate scores for the various categories became each state’s Education Freedom Index. Hawaii was at the bottom; we scored so low as to be less than half that of the next worst state, West Virginia.

The most interesting aspect of this index is that these states’ index scores correlate strongly with student performance; those states with the most parental choice in education experience the highest student scores. This is to be expected since it is a parent’s right to choose which school her child attends.

Another recent survey of mostly public schools is "No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools." This survey sought to determine what was it about these inner-city schools that allows their students to significantly outperform their peers in other high-poverty schools.

The author, Samuel Casey of Heritage Foundation, found seven common traits, all centering around the qualities of school principals:

First, these principals are free to decide how to spend their money, whom to hire and what to teach.

Second, these principals are relentless in their requirements for tangible, measurable and unyielding goals focusing on college prep.

Third, these principals scour the country for master teachers and then turn their schools into schools for teachers. Continuous improvement of the quality of instruction is their goal.

Fourth, they test rigorously and continuously. They, like good business managers, believe that management without measurement is useless.

Fifth, they believe that achievement is the key to discipline. They teach by example: that self-control, self-reliance and self-esteem anchored in achievement are the means to success. They believe that the school’s success will beget the students’ success.

Sixth, by following a "no excuses" policy, teachers can no longer blame the parents. Instead, these principals establish contracts with parents to, for example, read to their children and check their homework. Even so, in the end, it is still the child they hold accountable for his own success.

Seventh, these principals demand that the children and the teachers work hard. They eliminate social promotion and require students to fulfill very specific requirements before advancing to the next class.

What can we learn from these two studies? By having some school principals of this caliber with the ability to operate freely, and by giving parents some choice about which schools their children can attend, will dramatically improve our public schools. The higher-performing schools can set the example for the lower-performing schools and inevitably, most of the other principals would have to improve their own schools.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at

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