IN THE NEWS:  Education at a Crossroads


Education at a crossroads

A new teachers union president challenges the status quo as the DOE prepares a new way to evaluate student performance
By Vicki Viotti

POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 23, 2015

Things are hot in Hawaii’s public schools and they’re likely to get hotter, in more ways than one.

The 2015-2016 academic year has just begun, with temperatures as well as and tempers rising in classrooms unequipped with air conditioning. At the same time, a new teachers union president, who made his name on the issue of facilities in general and AC in particular, has begun his three-year term of office.

And the state Department of Education has changed course in a big way, too. The DOE is starting to reassess where school performance stands, as well as individual student learning outcomes. The relatively new school evaluation yardstick is called the Strive HI Performance System, which replaced the old No Child Left Behind federal system of grading schools.

Additionally, there’s a new individual measure: the Smarter Balanced Assessment tests, rolled out last spring. The scores, which will be issued in a pending report, takes the place of the Hawaii State Assessment exams in math and reading.

The new testing “will set a new baseline and cannot be compared with our old assessment,” Kathryn Matayoshi, DOE superintendent, said in a year-opening letter to students’ families. She called it a more rigorous test that is better aligned with Hawaii Common Core Standards, themselves only fully implemented in 2013-14.

The standards, she added, “provide better insight on students’ educational track and preparation for life after high school.”

All of those issues — Common Core, testing, facilities and, above all, the funding levels that underlie the whole educational operation — are bones of contention between the DOE administration and the teachers who are at the heart of everything.

Corey Rosenlee, new president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, puts what he calls the statewide underfunding of schools at the top of his list of priority concerns, with facilities and the emphasis on testing and evaluation not far behind.

“One of the biggest reasons that I went into teaching and why I ran for president is because I see the rate of inequality in our school system right now,” Rosenlee said last week at a meeting with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial board. “Our schools are creating a very different system, one system for rich children and one system for poor or middle-class children.”

The disparity he cites, the two-tiered system he describes, is the difference between public schools and the network of private schools in the state. Rosenlee made the private schools, especially the elite Punahou School, a point of comparison with the public schools on the practice of testing and on funding issues.

Private schools spend $15,000 to $25,000 per student; the public-school rate is more like $11,800 per student, he said, with a large chunk of that going toward special-education needs.

The expenditures affect both the operating needs — including, most pointedly for a union president, teacher salaries — and the capital investments. Many of Hawaii school buildings are 60 years old or older, in need of repair and lacking in air conditioning or other design solutions to the oppressive classroom heat, he said.

If salaries were adjusted for cost of living and compared nationally, teachers would be starting out earning the equivalent of $35,000, Rosenlee said — and that this is the difficulty with recruitment.

And, he said, the shortage of teachers means that teacher evaluations — or even moving faculty to yearly contracts, as many private school teachers have — would not likely result in the underperformers being shown the door. There aren’t enough applicants, he said: Half the new teachers are already emergency hires.

“The problem in Hawaii is, we’re not in the position where we’re trying to find the best teachers, we’re just trying to find bodies sometimes,” he added. “It’s a non-competitive situation.”

When he looks at Punahou, Rosenlee sees a system that takes a less top-down approach with what happens in the classroom.

“They have academic freedom,” he said. “You don’t have high-stakes testing at Punahou. What often happens is they hire good people and let them do their jobs.”

Testing affects teacher evaluations directly. This may have a perverse effect on what the teacher delivers to students, he said, since “45 percent of a teacher evaluation for some teachers is based on student learning outcomes.”

“In order to get a highly effective rating, teachers need 90 percent of students to reach certain levels,” Rosenlee said. “Which means, are you going to set a standard that’s so high that most students don’t make it, or are you going to set a standard low that all of your students can reach 90 percent?”

Rosenlee prefers a system in which students are assessed more by a “portfolio” of their work rather than on the snapshots of tests. However, Matayoshi and Assistant Superintendent Tammi Oyadomari-Chun said the DOE approach is really more nuanced than the union president describes.

”You’re looking at multiple data points to look at how students are doing,” Matayoshi said; the department materials on the test point to its focus on how students apply their skills and on drawing out their critical-thinking capabilities.

Oyadomari-Chun said that teacher evaluations take a lot into consideration.

“We’re using multiple measures, we’re not just looking at testing,” she said. “There’s a component of their evaluation that’s dependent on scores, but there’s also administrators’ observation of their teaching.”

The administration has taken some encouragement from improvement in new-teacher retention, which had been a chronic problem in the schools. An emphasis on mentoring teachers in their first three years has been credited with more of them staying beyond five years in the profession, a proportion that’s now up to 60 percent.

Matayoshi said she believes efforts by the DOE to raise the bar in recent years are starting to show results, and the data highlights are posted online ( Among them are: an increase in the scores in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress; a rise in the percentage of students graduating high school; and a drop in the percentage of public-school graduates needing remediation at the University of Hawaii.

Where the DOE administrators and Rosenlee agree is that resources aren’t where they should be. One graph they pointed out illustrates that the department’s general fund budget is about where it was in 2008.

The capital improvement projects budget should benefit from a recent investment in photovoltaic solar power in schools, and other efficiency initiatives to save money over time.

A portable at Waianae High School revved up a standalone PV air-conditioning system about a year ago. A second, similar installation, this one purchased by a student-run crowdfunding campaign, is in the works at Campbell High School. The DOE considers these efforts pilot projects to be evaluated before they could be scaled up.

Where Matayoshi and Rosenlee diverge is on how much noise to make about the funding issue.

“We’re not keeping up with inflation,” Matayoshi acknowledged, “but I don’t want to be the greedy department that wants to take all the money. The work other departments do is important, too, and it affects our kids.

“In terms of the general fund, the Legislature’s tried to get us extra funding, and we’ve gotten our fair share.”

Rosenlee doesn’t see why the state can’t accelerate the process. The DOE could take advantage of technologies that should keep the cost of upgrades down, he said.

The challenge in the coming weeks will be where in the middle the two sides might meet — both on the facilities issue, as well as the academic strategies. Matayoshi said national surveys show a growing affinity among teachers for the Common Core standards, as long as they’re given time to adjust to them.

The administration’s plan is to stay the course, she said, but meetings with union representatives will continue.

“I think there’s a mutual respect,” she said.

The union leader’s take: There’s work to be done.

“We do know what good education looks like,” Rosenlee said. “The question is, how do you get there?”