Public schools will use federal funds to improve both students and teachers

By Mary Vorsino

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 25, 2010

The $75 million Race to the Top federal grant announced yesterday for Hawaii schools will kick-start some of the biggest reform initiatives ever seen in the state’s public education system, educators say.

The money will be targeted on efforts to turn around low-performing schools, boost student achievement, better evaluate teacher effectiveness and steer low-performing teachers out of the classroom.

Officials say although the changes are sweeping, they are also doable — through measured phase-ins and targeted work to help students, teachers, principals and schools in need of the most help.

“I know we have a huge job ahead of us,” interim schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said at a news conference yesterday. “We’re really talking about redesigning all of our system.”

The biggest challenge in the Race to the Top reforms, officials say, will likely be hammering out a performance-based teacher contract that will evaluate teachers, in part, on their students’ progress over the course of the school year.

Student growth could be measured by test scores, but their progress will also likely include other factors.

Hawaii was among 36 states for the second round of the highly competitive federal Race to the Top grants. Nine states and the District of Columbia were named grant winners yesterday.

Hawaii’s share represents a small fraction of the state Department of Education’s budget of $1.7 billion, but officials say the money will go far because it will create new programs — not be sunk into existing ones.


» Best teachers, bottom schools: Getting the best instructors to teach at the state’s lowest-performing schools is a key element in the Race to the Top plan. Story Educators also hope the grant will help mend the tattered reputation of Hawaii’s school system in the wake of teacher furloughs last school year, which gave Hawaii schools the shortest instructional calendar in the nation.
Lois Yamauchi, a parent of two children in public schools and a member of Save Our Schools, a group formed to protest the furloughs, said the Race to the Top award is a “nice success after a year that’s been so difficult for many educators and families.”

She added that she is looking forward to the reforms planned as part of Race to the Top, especially more emphasis on supporting teachers and moving away from putting too much weight on test scores as an indicator of how a school is doing.

Valerie Sonoda, president of PTSA-Hawaii, said nobody can say for certain whether the big reforms the DOE envisions will actually come to pass.

But, she said, it is important that the DOE make ambitious goals and work toward them.

“I think … (this) is an opportunity that Hawaii has to improve its education programs,” she said. “I’m hoping that the department will use the funds to reform education to ensure that we have the foundations in place so that we don’t have another furlough-type situation.”

The state has a rough time line for when it would like to see big improvement in key areas, and says poorly performing schools should be seeing see rising student achievement within a year.

A Hawaii team will travel next month to Washington, D.C., to work out key details of the grant, including when the Race to the Top money will be disbursed and what progress goals the state will have to meet.

Meantime, the state is entering collective bargaining now, and some teachers — in schools in need of the biggest improvements — could be on performance-based contracts as early as 2011.

All teachers are expected to be on the new contracts by 2013, when half of an evaluation will be based on student performance and the other half will be based on observations by a principal.

Evaluations are now based on qualitative assessments (such as how a teacher manages a classroom or tackles a lesson).

Al Nagasako, executive director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said teachers are wary of the changes and the new push to measure effectiveness.

But, he added, they are also interested in coming to the table and talking about how they can do their jobs better. He said the key is ensuring that ineffective teachers get the help they need to do better and those who show no improvement are counseled about possibly leaving the profession.

“Teachers are quite apprehensive. They’re definitely looking for the support to make it happen,” Nagasako said. But he added, “We’re at the table. We want to be part of it.”

The biggest chunk of the state’s Race grant — $33.2 million — will go to improving teacher and principal effectiveness through more training opportunities, bonuses for highly effective teachers and other initiatives.

The state will spend about $18.7 million from the Race grant on turning around the lowest-performing schools by instituting programs — including expanding pre-kindergarten opportunities and extending classroom time — in “zones of school innovation” on the Big Island and along the Leeward Coast.

Other key reform efforts include boosting classroom rigor by implementing the national common core standards curriculum, improving student performance data collection and use and reorganizing the DOE to better monitor and support reform.

Matayoshi stressed that none of the Race funds will be used to address budget shortfalls or tackle operational costs, like backlogged repairs.

“The money is meant to start reforms, to leverage reforms,” she said. “This is not intended to replace our general fund budget reductions.”

Yesterday at a Capitol news conference, state officials, Matayoshi and other educators were all smiles as they discussed the great strides they intend to make and said there was never any doubt that Hawaii’s school system could do great things.

“Some may be surprised we are a recipient. I don’t think it should be a surprise,” said Garrett Toguchi, chairman of the Board of Education. “Hawaii has proven … our schools have been doing a lot better” than commonly thought.

A panel of experts scored each Race to the Top application on a 500-point scale and rescored it after in-person interviews with finalists, in which states explained how their reforms were attainable.

Hawaii received 462 points, third highest after Massachusetts and New York. In the first round of grants, announced in March, Hawaii received merely 364 points in large part because its application was incomplete.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Hawaii’s application was “very impressive.”

“Despite the furlough days, Hawaii has a real chance to take student achievement to a different level,” Duncan said. “Hawaii absolutely put its best foot forward.”

Race to the Top grants are aimed at rewarding states that have “ambitious yet achievable” plans for implementing compelling and comprehensive education reform.

The federal government has doled out $4.35 billion through Race to the Top — $600 million of which was split between round-one winners Tennessee and Delaware — as part of a push to improve the nation’s education system and better prepare students for college or careers.

Some of the reform work outlined in the state’s Race to the Top application has already started, including efforts to institute new programs at Nana-kuli Intermediate and High School and Waianae High aimed at boosting student achievement through project-based learning.

Kamehameha Schools and others have teamed up with the DOE on some of those reforms, offering funding and other support to help struggling schools and close the achievement gap among native Hawaiians and disadvantaged children.

Kamehameha officials said yesterday the Race to the Top award would further mobilize other community partners and bolster public-private partnerships in schools.

“For Kamehameha it just makes total sense that we join arms with the public school system,” said Dee Jay Mailer, chief executive officer of Kamehameha Schools. She added that the Race grant — and its reforms — are “groundbreaking” for Hawaii.

“This is really going to jump-start and accelerate everything that’s going on,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

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