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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Race to the Top needs all hands on deck

The state Department of Education has made a credible pitch for federal Race to the Top funds, the competitive grant program offered through the stimulus package.

However, the team that put its proposal in the mail over the holiday weekend needs a deep bench of support, not only to improve the odds of being selected but to make sure the planned reforms can be put in place for the benefit of our kids.

Despite this state's spotty history of handling true education reform, there's hope for progress here.

The full 900-page proposal, seeking a minimum of $75 million over four years, is not yet available for public review. Judging by the description of it by Kathryn Matayoshi, interim superintendent, it would create an "Zone of School Innovation" encompassing schools on O'ahu's west side, several of which are chronically low-performing schools.

It makes perfect sense to take some experimental first steps on the coast, which for several years has been a focal point for a DOE private partnership with Kamehameha Schools. The educational trust benefiting Native Hawaiians has expanded its educational outreach beyond its own three campuses and into programs enhancing education in public schools in areas that, like Wai'anae, have large Native Hawaiian populations.

Leveraging that private investment with federal dollars is part of the plan, but there will be more key components. The "zone" schools would be able to hire teachers with greater flexibility and offer incentives to them. And these teachers would agree to formulas linking student performance with their own evaluations, which has been resisted in the past.

This sounds encouraging if Hawai'i can pull together and burnish its reputation, tarnished by the furlough controversy.

So far, efforts to forge an agreement that would reduce the number of furlough days during instructional time have failed. The feds already have heaped criticism on Hawai'i because of furloughs, so the fact that this problem is still festering hasn't helped the state's case, Matayoshi said.

Reaching an accord now would boost prospects for the state's application, and there could be no better incentive.

If the DOE is successful, the work doesn't end there. The Board of Education must commit to supporting innovation, even if that means venturing into uncharted waters; the board must also be able to handle the political pressure and resistance to change.

The fact is, there are models of successful innovation nationally, and in school districts of comparable size to this one. Hawai'i should not shrink from its own foray into improving its educational system.

Success will take a team effort, and all the power players elected officials, staff, unions and the broader community have to be on board.