Five of Hawaii’s education leaders are in Washington, D.C. today to present their best case for the state’s proposed education reforms, in hopes of earning $75 million in Race to the Top funds.

To be considered for the competitive education grant, states must demonstrate a collaborative effort driving “bold” system reform. This is the second round of applications that the U.S. Department of Education has considered for the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion program to promote education reforms nationwide. Hawaii failed to make the cut in the first round, but two weeks ago was named among 19 finalists for the second round, thanks to a revised application.

If Hawaii is among the possible 10-15 winners, up to $75 million would be distributed to the state’s education department over the next four years and would be earmarked for implementing education reform proposals outlined in its application. A huge effort has gone into the application, which if successful would bring in about 1 percent more revenue for the school system annually.

The program appears to be driving education reform nationally and in Hawaii. But it’s not without its own controversies — not the least of which is the lingering question about whether the reforms it encourages will have positive results. The National Education Association, one of the most prominent national teachers unions, has denounced the program for, among other things, “an unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success.”

Civil Beat decided to take a closer look at Race to the Top — both what it says it entails, and what Hawaii is committing itself for in the event it wins the $75 million it seeks.

The federal program focuses on four core areas for reforming the nation’s education system, state by state:

  • Adopting international standards and assessments that will help prepare students for success in college and careers.
  • Improving data collection systems so they reflect students’ success and help teachers better meet their needs.
  • Increasing teacher and principal effectiveness and distributing qualified teachers equitably.

  • Turning around the nation’s lowest-achieving schools.

Even without federal incentives, the state faces pressure to reform its schools from a number of quarters. Those urging change include grassroots parent organizations who rallied together to protest last year’s Furlough Fridays, and three former Democratic governors who formed Hawaii’s Children First to urge greater accountability. Many are critical of the state’s consistently low rankings in national assessments. So regardless of whether the state wins one of the coveted Race to the Top grants, Hawaii will continue to address these and other education concerns by making realities out of the proposals outlined in its grant application, Gov. Linda Lingle said in a news release last month.

In its second Race to the Top application Hawaii promises it will:

  • Raise Hawaii State Assessment scores to 90 percent in reading and 82 percent in math by 2014 and to 100 percent in both reading and math by 2018.

  • Increase the high school graduation rate from 80 percent to 90 percent by 2018 and have 100 percent of students earning the new “college- and career-ready” high school diploma.

  • Increase the college matriculation rate of high school graduates from 51 percent to 62 percent by 2018; and increase the number of college graduates by 26 percent by the year 2015.

  • Eliminate achievement gaps between individual groups and all students in state assessment scores, graduation rates and college enrollment by 2018.

  • Ensure that by next year, all new teacher hires in high-poverty schools for science, technology, engineering and math subject areas will be highly qualified.

Among the things the department says it will be do to achieve those goals are:

  • Implement end-of-course exams in high school to measure student gains in the sciences, math and history.
  • Develop and implement interim assessments for all grades in English, math, science and social studies.
  • Begin providing student growth data for 14 schools in the 2011-12 school year, adding additional schools with each school year.

  • Measure teacher effectiveness: 50 percent based on student learning gains, and 50 percent based on teacher practice.
  • Conduct annual evaluations on all educational officers, including teachers, principals and complex area superintendents. The current system evaluates teachers every five years.

  • Require all teachers and principals to develop professional development plans with their supervisors and update them at least once every two years.
  • Make evaluations the key factor in decisions about professional development, tenure, compensation and firings.

  • Continue a $3,000 incentive for highly qualified teachers who choose to work in certain high-need schools and implement a $10,000 incentive for principals who do the same. The department told Civil Beat this summer it was not sure could afford to continue its incentive programs.

The other mechanics of how Hawaii plans to achieve its education reform goals are the focus of the team’s presentation this week in D.C. The team members are:

The group will deliver a 30-minute explanation of the state’s application to a panel of education experts, said Bob Campbell, executive assistant for school reform at the Hawaii Department of Education. (Campbell’s current position was created in conjunction with this latest Race to the Top application.) The group will then field questions from the experts for an hour.

“They’re not allowed to add any more information, but just to explain what is already in the application,” Campbell said, adding that the state’s centralized education department may prove a boon in the final stages of the grant competition.

“The fact that there’s a centralized management approach to making sure we get done these things we say we’re going to do will probably resonate well with the people reviewing.”

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