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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

'No Child' working in Hawai'i

By David Shapiro

It's disappointing that 64 percent of Hawai'i's public schools failed to meet academic standards in the first assessments under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but the news isn't as grim as it seems.

We can take encouragement from the sensible way the Department of Education is addressing the shortcomings and devising individualized improvement plans for each of the 180 schools that tested below standard.

And we can be proud that our DOE has resisted temptations to join several other states in making compliance easier by lowering testing standards.

As a result, this law is likely to bring more true school reform to Hawai'i than all of the talk about local vs. statewide school boards, elected vs. appointed boards, regional school complexes and other political fixes proposed over the years.

There's no better path to improvement than setting measurable standards and holding responsible parties accountable for meeting them.

The Bush administration and Congress have drawn criticism from Hawai'i and other states for imposing the weighty demands of No Child Left Behind without providing total funding to carry out the mandate.

Essentially, the federal government is telling the states we have to spend more of our own money to improve public schools.

Such federal dictates are often offensive, but in this case we've known for years that we need to allocate more resources to education. We've just lacked the political will to confront the hard choices and make it happen.

With the states failing to get the job done, it was reasonable for the president and Congress to step in and declare that better public education is a pressing national priority that must be addressed with urgency.

The goals that so many Hawai'i schools failed to meet this year were relatively modest: Only 10 percent of the students had to test proficiently in math and 30 percent in reading.

The challenge becomes more difficult over the next decade as proficiency standards ramp up to 100 percent.

Such tough requirements have politicians in a frenzy.

There was a failed move in the Legislature to pull Hawai'i out of No Child Left Behind at a cost of millions of dollars in federal aid for public schools.

And Board of Education Chairman Herbert Watanabe groused that "the feds gotta have their heads examined," reeling off a string of excuses for Hawai'i's poor performance, such as special-education requirements, high levels of poverty and limited English proficiency in some school districts.

The impressive thing about Superintendent Pat Hamamoto and her team at DOE is that they've mostly steered clear of excuse-making and instead have doggedly set about finding ways to bring failing schools up to standard.

The federal law prescribes some drastic remedies for the worst schools — total replacement of staff, conversion to charter schools, turning over school operations to outside organizations.

But Hamamoto and the DOE are wisely taking a more delicate approach of sending assessment and intervention teams into failing schools to provide support for the best ways to bring each of them up to standard.

Hamamoto has brought a breath of fresh air to our school system with her focus on the goal, common sense and cool head under pressure.

Since taking over after the chaotic departure of Paul LeMahieu, she's displayed a natural leadership ability that inspires confidence and appears to be turning the defensive cover-your-butt culture that has held back the DOE for so long.

Whether Hawai'i ultimately meets all of the federal standards or not, our schools are bound to improve immeasurably from the process of diligently working on the problem.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net.