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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 4, 2010

Lesson learned: We can still win this thing

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Hawai'i took the federal education reform test, and the results are in: It's a C.

Okay, maybe a C-plus.

The state public school system's application for the Race to the Top grant competition came in 22nd out of 41 states. Not too bad, actually.

Still, it's important to keep in mind what the results mean. They are not an evaluation of how our schools have performed. They are an evaluation of a promise: how the state intends to meet ambitious federal goals for improving schools and its potential for doing so.

Hawai'i will try again in a second round of applications, due June 1. Based on evaluators' comments on the state's initial attempt, the key weak spots are right where we'd expect.

• Charter schools: The feds love charter schools to a fault, and don't like the cap that limits the number Hawai'i can have. But the state's charter schools, being quasi-independent with their own review panel and funding source, have their own problems. Standardized test scores show students are doing no better than in regular schools, and accountability for student and school performance is weak and fractured. It's imperative that the Legislature, the state Department of Education and charter school advocates agree on a new set of clear rules of accountability as well as a system of equitable funding.

• Evaluating teachers and principals: Measuring an educator's effectiveness must include the most important yardstick, student performance. Federal evaluators correctly pointed out that the lack of commitment from the unions on this point needs to be resolved. The second-round application should include plain language that shows unambiguous support from the teachers' and principals' unions for this necessary reform. Both Tennessee and Delaware, the first-round winners, have such support from nearly all of their teachers unions. Hawai'i should, too.

• Collecting data: The ability to track every student's performance from pre-kindergarten to entry into the workforce is a kind of Holy Grail for educators and a requirement for stimulus funding. A robust longitudinal data system would provide hard information that can help the school system target its reforms and correct weaknesses, including inadequate performance standards for teachers, principals and individual schools. Senate Bill 2122 would allow key state agencies to share data with the DOE so such a comprehensive system can be created. It deserves support.

Winning a $75 million federal grant won't be easy. It's not meant to be. Race to the Top sets ambitious goals, and demands accountability.

On that score, the DOE is right to set the public school system's course by Race to the Top's star whether we win the money or not. It's the smart way to get a higher grade.