UPDATED 1/12/12 11:55 a.m.

The Hawaii Department of Education once touted the islands’ single statewide school district as an advantage in the Race to the Top, but now the deputy superintendent says it’s a drag on education reforms.

A federal report released Tuesday outlining Hawaii’s failure to meet Race to the Top targets suggests the statewide system may have once given Hawaii an edge, but it’s not helping the state now.

But department leaders are unfazed by the report, Ronn Nozoe told Civil Beat Tuesday, and plan to continue moving forward.

“We know where we are,” he said. “There were no surprises in the report. We already knew what we needed to change, but because we’re a statewide system, it’s harder to get moving on some of these initiatives.”

But that’s not what they said back in May 2010, on their application for the $75 million federal grant.

According to the application, Hawaii’s “single, statewide district” was supposed to be an advantage in placing highly qualified and effective teachers in the highest-need schools, among other things. They also marketed the statewide district as “a compelling ‘demonstration site’ for launching education reform strategies at full scale statewide.”

Now it appears the monolithic structure might be the very characteristic that makes Hawaii a particularly challenging “demonstration site.” To deploy sweeping education reforms in 289 schools simultaneously is no small feat — especially when you’re trying to do it on a dwindling budget.

Nozoe said that almost all the state’s education promises have been delayed because “all of our work has to be integrated.”

One delay was in establishing a project management structure that works. Hawaii “underestimated the time necessary” to organize all its offices and hire key personnel, the report states. It also failed to meet student proficiency targets on both the state assessment and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Not All Bad News

While the statewide district is an impediment for getting things done, the federal report acknowledges that it proved an advantage in getting everyone on the same page — including the governor and the Hawaii State Board of Education.

“The Hawaii Department of Education (HIDOE) is the only State in the nation with a single, statewide K-12 school system that operates as both the State educational agency (SEA) and the local educational agency (LEA),” the report says. “Therefore, all 289 schools in Hawaii located on six of Hawaii’s eight main islands, are participating in the State’s Race to the Top plan.”

But the message from the U.S. Department of Education is clear: Now it’s time to move past talking and planning, and get on with implementing the program. The department plans to keep plowing ahead with its projects, but may have to start small.

In his Race to the Top update before the Board of Education’s Student Achievement Committee Tuesday, Nozoe talked briefly about the state’s broader vision for education reform, but focused most of his time on a couple of smaller pockets of success: Zones of School Innovation.

The zones are two rural areas — one on Oahu’s Leeward Coast and one on the Big Island — where the Department of Education is testing various education initiatives contained in the Race to the Top.

“We hope to use the lessons learned from these two zones to create a statewide strategy and criteria,” Nozoe told board members.

“We’re just continuing with the trajectory,” Nozoe said later. “Nothing is on hold. We’re continuing to move forward.”

About the Author