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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 17, 2006

We are determined to be poor in education

By Cliff Slater

The reason public education in Hawai'i continues to struggle and falter is simple: Parents really do not care enough to do anything about the issue.

Close to a decade ago ("The tragedy of Hawai'i education" June 15, 1997), I pointed out that in Education Week's "Quality of Teaching" survey, Hawai'i ranked dead last.

While there does not appear to have been a subsequent survey, according to a recent Education Trust report, 33 percent of Hawai'i classes in the core academic subjects are being taught by teachers lacking at least a minor in the field the sixth worst performance among the 50 states.

The only relevant way to compare the different states' student achievements is using the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), "the Nation's Report Card."

Back then, combining Hawai'i's NAEP scores for reading and math put us ahead of just three states Mississippi, New Mexico and Louisiana. Since then, we have made no progress; today's rankings are as poor as nine years ago.

In 1997, I pointed out how badly the U.S. did in comparison with other countries, and that has not changed either.

This comparison is important because it is not as though Hawai'i is the fourth worst state, while the U.S. is a high-scoring nation. Instead, the latest Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development scores for education performance place the U.S. one-third from the bottom of the table, sandwiched between Hungary and the Slovak Republic, with Finland, Korea and the Netherlands way up at the top.

Think about that: At a time when educational attainment is essential for our children to get decent jobs, Hawai'i has one of the lowest public education scores in the developed world.

It is not as though we were not warned. Over 20 years ago, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued "A Nation at Risk," stating that, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. ... The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops. America's position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer."

We have ignored the warning nationally and solved the problem by bringing in Mexicans to do the hard manual work we do not want to do and Indians and Chinese to do the hard intellectual work that we do not want to do. That leaves our students with the easy and mediocre work for which our nation's public education system has so well suited them.

We have also ignored the warning in Hawai'i, with the result that, in general, our graduates are just not sufficiently educated to cope with the burgeoning knowledge economy we now have.

Why have Hawai'i parents stood still for this?

It is simply that they just do not value education sufficiently. We know that from those parents who prefer band practice to science lessons for their kids, from the 90 percent of parents who do not take advantage of available free tutoring, from the 99 percent of parents whose children are in failing schools and are eligible to choose a different school but do not. In addition, we know it because there is a total lack of parental activism for change in public education.

All it would take for matters to change is for a couple of hundred parents to chain themselves to the Capitol building, go on a hunger strike, and the death grip that union leaders have on public education would disappear in short order; there is nothing that gets an elected official's attention quicker than irate constituents.

Cliff Slater's footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.