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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 5, 2006

Five steps to improve schools

By Randy Hitz

This is the latest installment in our Voices in Education series. These commentaries are written for The Advertiser through a partnership with Voices of Educators, a nonprofit, volunteer coalition composed of front-line participants in education in Hawai'i. It was created to foster debate and public policy change, with the goal of improving Hawai'i's public education system. For more information, see www.hawaii.edu /voice.

Hawai'i can have the best schools and university in the world. But we can only get out of it what we're willing to put in. No deposit, no return.

As the 2006 legislative session begins, we must have an action plan that will take Hawai'i's public education system from good to excellent.

Why? Because excellent schools and universities will prepare our children to be tomorrow's leaders and builders. Excellent schools and universities will attract others to our state. Excellent schools and universities will foster economic, social and cultural success for Hawai'i.

Here are five key steps to help make Hawai'i's public schools and university among the best anywhere.

No. 1: Give our children an early start.

Extensive research shows that children who start learning before kindergarten are better students and, as a result, are more successful later in life.

The recently formed Early-Childhood Education Task Force recognized this fact and developed a thoughtful and comprehensive plan for developing a successful early-childhood education program in Hawai'i. If implemented, their ground-breaking set of recommendations will place Hawai'i on the leading edge in the nation.

Task force recommendations included providing universal early learning opportunities for all 4-year-olds in Hawai'i; using a flexible source of funding for innovative programs such as parent education, play-and-learn groups and infant and toddler programs for newborns to age 5; and creating a new statewide entity to coordinate services for young children more efficiently.

Funding a truly comprehensive, statewide early-childhood education system will not be cheap. However, while it may sound expensive, the cost pales in comparison to what we spend to educate students from age 5 through 25. We must consider funding for early-childhood education as one of the most critical places we can invest to ensure a bright education future for our children. No deposit, no return.

It's time to fully implement and fund a comprehensive program for universal early-childhood education in Hawai'i.

No. 2: Put a quality teacher in every classroom.

Countless studies show the single most important factor affecting student achievement is the quality of the teacher. Volumes of research confirm the common sense notion that skilled, professional teachers are more effective with students than unqualified ones.

Professionally trained teachers understand how children learn and develop. They possess deep knowledge of the subject matter they teach. And they possess a wide repertoire of teaching strategies. The best teachers complete high-quality teacher education programs, have access to ongoing quality professional development throughout their careers and work in environments that promote student and teacher success.

Hawai'i's public schools have some of the best teachers anywhere. But each year the Department of Education must hire more than 300 teachers who have no formal preparation to become teachers. That's because our local universities cannot produce enough teachers. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that too few of our bright students choose teaching as a career, and too many of those who do leave the profession after two to three years.

How can we recruit and keep more good teachers? Simple. Do what any good business would do when confronted by a shortage of workers: Increase compensation. Improve working conditions. Provide ongoing training and support for employees. If this works for McDonald's, shouldn't it work for schools? No deposit, no return.

We recommend funding Hawai'i's teacher preparation programs including the Professional Development Schools program so that no qualified applicant will be turned away. We should also offer compensation and incentives (including, for example, housing support) that will attract Hawai'i's best students to become teachers. While we have made progress on this front, we must do more due to Hawai'i's high cost of living.

And we can do more. We should also fund the mentoring and induction programs mandated last year by the Legislature so that new teachers get the support they need to be successful and to remain in teaching. And fund the loan forgiveness and scholarship programs that the Legislature established, and the governor supports, to assist those who choose to pursue a teaching career in Hawai'i.

No. 3: Fix our classrooms.

Look at the banks downtown or the hotels in Waikiki and compare them to our public schools and many university buildings. The shocking state of disrepair of Hawai'i's public schools sends the wrong message to our children and the value we place on them.

If schools are supposed to be places of learning that set the stage for students' success, they must look attractive and appealing.

They also must be equipped with current technology, and with the equipment and resources needed to support student learning. Our classrooms also should be inviting and comfortable, especially when you consider most students spend at least six hours every day in school.

Ask any public school student how it feels to be in classrooms that are hot, crowded and poorly equipped, and how difficult it is to concentrate and learn under these conditions. We don't impose these conditions on most adults!

The University of Hawai'i also has buildings in disrepair. As far back as 1994, the state Department of Accounting and Government Services identified this problem in a memo that stated:

"Several of the older wooden buildings built about the time of WWII are deteriorating structurally, and the spaces therein are functionally inadequate and obsolete. Constructed according to building codes which have been superseded, some of these buildings do not meet current standards, and pose safety and health hazards."

These buildings are termite-and rat-infested. They remain as they were in 1994, only older and more run down.

The deferred repair and maintenance bill for the DOE is $525 million and for the university it is $175 million. In the wake of such enormous infrastructure needs, it is clear how we must spend the so-called "budget surplus."

Now is the time to fully fund the R&M (repair and maintenance) and CIP (construction) requests of the Board of Education and the Board of Regents, and use the matrix developed to identify R&M and CIP requests in order of priority. Then, we should prepare and follow a schedule of repairs and improvements that keeps our schools and university safe and welcoming.

No. 4: Get serious about investing in education.

We have long suspected we are underinvesting in Hawai'i's public schools, but no one ever knew exactly by just how much. Thanks to a recent study by the renowned education company Grant Thornton commissioned by the Department of Education, we now know the answer, and it is chilling.

The study showed that Hawai'i is underinvesting in our state's public education system by $278 million. This dramatic shortfall is based on identifying a baseline school model for Hawai'i and then comparing the actual vs. needed dollars spent. We can never expect the car to go faster if we don't put gas in the tank. Similarly, we cannot expect Hawai'i's public education system to perform if we don't invest enough money to begin with.

Certainly Hawai'i's public school system does not always operate as efficiently or effectively as we would like. And, while recent changes have helped streamline the DOE and make operations more efficient, there is more work to be done. However, this does not change that fact that we are not adequately funding public schools to begin with.

If we are really serious about making Hawai'i's public education system world class, we must get serious about investing the money it really takes to run a quality school system that today serves 181,000 children throughout the state.

That means developing a financial plan for supporting our schools and university so they can be the best in the world, and matching the funding levels as outlined in the Grant Thornton study within the next 10 years.

No. 5: Let educators do their job.

Hawai'i's schools and university are staffed by knowledgeable, hardworking and caring people. They know what they're doing. They work under oftentimes unreasonable constraints. But they care and want to be successful.

We, therefore, question whether it is sound policy to allow management and operational decisions to be made by those with little or no expertise in education, with even less knowledge about individual students and with political agendas that may be counter-productive. If sound public policies are set based on a shared vision of what is desired and appropriate resources are provided, the administrators, faculty and staff in our schools and university can do their job and do it well.

Act 51 attempted to move as much decision-making to the school level as possible. This was a good thing. But policymakers contradict themselves when they pass this kind of legislation on the one hand and then micromanage other aspects of the system on the other hand. The Board of Education and Board of Regents are responsible for overseeing the work of our schools and university. Give them the resources they need and let them do their job. Then monitor their successes and failures and consult them about what, from a policy level, can be done to increase their successes and minimize their failures.

Let's give our public school educators the support and flexibility to do what they do best teach.

It was Lyndon Johnson who said, "At the desk where I sit, I have learned one great truth. The answer for all our national problems the answer for all the problems in the world comes to a single word. That word is 'education.' "

Ensuring a bright future for Hawai'i all comes down to the same word: education. We must invest in a quality public education system if we want to see Hawai'i do well now and in the future.

President Johnson also said: "We must open the doors of opportunity. But we must also equip our people to walk through those doors."

We owe it to every child in Hawai'i to provide the best possible education so that they are equipped to walk through whatever doors they choose.

We can make this vision for a world-class public education system a reality if we have the public and political will to make it happen. We look forward to working with our elected officials and the public at large as we move toward making Hawai'i's public schools second to none.

Contributors to this commentary include Liz Chun, executive director of Good Beginnings; Patricia Hamamoto, superintendent for the Department of Education; Joan Lee Husted, executive director of the Hawai'i State Teachers Association; Roger Takabayashi, HSTA president; Sharon Mahoe, executive director of the Hawai'i Teachers Standards Board; Alvin Nagasako, principal of Kapolei high school and president of Unit 6 of HGEA; and Robert Witt, executive director of the Hawai'i Association of Independent Schools.