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The Future for Education in Hawaii Public Schools and ESSA:  The Squirrel and the Mongoose

Most parents may be too busy to know what is going on with the new funding program implemented by President Obama or how it will impact families in Hawaii. The purpose of this blog, from my standpoint, is to educate families and give an opinion on some basic points regarding Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) with Hawaii’s Department of Education (DOE) “Design Ideas.” Essentially the ESSA will allow states and local public schools districts more freedom to decide what “Design Ideas” matter most to them and create a path forward using input or empowerment from local communities. There are several of these “Design Ideas” but I will focus only on 2 questions that are interconnected to me as an educator. They are: (1) “How can we better define the role of students, parents, teachers, principals, complex area superintendents, Superintendent, and Board of Education to empower Hawaii’s education system?” (2) Consider student assessments, teacher assessments, and school assessments – what is working and what is not?

Before I can begin and state my opinion of the new ESSA education standards I will give some personal context. As a teacher and one-on-one tutor during the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) it always felt like the education community was held at ransom to teach to the test. My convictions come from the failure of our education system when the emphasis was placed on the greater whole and not on individual communities and their demographics. This occurred when the goals to raise educational rigor and codify it by creating national testing standards resulted in teachers being forced to teach to culturally irrelevant tests. This meant what was not working was the time needed to make content interesting or relevant to our state culture. It meant discontinuing the use of tried and true methods of using local examples to illustrate universal concepts in all subjects. The results of this teach-to-test trend hit states hardest with large English Language Learner (ELL) populations. Because federal funding was held in jeopardy without compliance the pressure placed on education was severe. In an effort to meet these new standards had side effects that left many parents wondering how their local input mattered. Teachers and educators became the escape goat for a failed system that did just the opposite; left many children behind. It tended to affect lower performing schools the most with large ELL populations. Families with higher incomes turned to private education and supplemental alternatives. Many students today across all demographics have no sense of respect for adults, teachers, or even their own parents. I often wonder if parents themselves lack the time to build respect with their children for them to act out in such ways? In the end there is too much blame to go around and not enough learning is the result.

With the advent of ESSA and Strive Hawaii we now have a choice for a fresh start. I believe in both raising the bar and creating a high level of rigor in education to challenge students. It also means having basic testing standards to evaluate student understanding that measure student knowledge with cultural relevancy. There are many ways to evaluate if a child can understand a new concept, even in math. The purpose of an assessment is to evaluate understanding and the methods for solving the task. This is all an assessment needs to be. The problem occurs when those in power feel the assessment should be written or presented in a biased cultural context, resulting in confusion. For example: If students have been studying about local food webs and then receive a national assessment about the role of squirrels in a food web, they may not understand the context. This is because we have no squirrels here on the islands. If you use a mongoose instead, similar to a squirrel as a rodent, its role in the food web becomes apparent. In each case the standard is held high and the rigor can be made challenging. The difference lies in cultural and environmental sensitivities to what can work as an assessment. This is where local community input is needed to make assessments relevant.

We have now come full-circle and back to the question asked above: can we empower more educators and parents if the assessments really test understanding along state and national standards when adapted to our unique cultural context? Empowerment is all about knowing what is correct or incorrect, and being self-assured with your choices. It also means giving parents the opportunity to participate and live up to their responsibilities raising keiki with respect, and learning skills that foster critical thinking. I believe this new interpretation using the greater freedom of ESSA will allow Hawaii DOE, local complex areas, and parents to do just this. In the end it will create more empowerment through success when assessments have local relevancy and local communities have more say as to what is relevant.

Mahalo for your time.

Here is where you can find more information about the Hawaii DOE and ESSA: