The newly created Educational Institute of Hawaii (EIH) recently sponsored a two-day conference on school empowerment. Presenters included eight educators from four school systems in the United States and Canada who have been involved in school empowerment efforts. Attendees included 250 teachers, principals, legislators, members of the Board of Education, and community members.

EIH envisions this conference to be the beginning of a process that will change the culture of Hawaii’s public school system to significantly improve student learning.

Kindergarten student going over days of the week at Ala Wai Elementary School on August 21, 2014

A kindergarten student reviews the days of the week at Ala Wai Elementary School.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Many people feel that Hawaii’s public school system has become dysfunctional. Hawaii’s Department of Education is characterized by the central office making decisions and issuing mandate after mandate to the schools. Principals and teachers too often perceive these mandates as irrelevant to student learning and feel that complying with them detracts from fulfilling their responsibilities as educators. National test scores place Hawaii’s DOE in the bottom 10 states.

The DOE’s top-down management style constrains principals and teachers, along with other school staff. They are kept from doing their best work, and as a result their morale is at an all-time low. It is distressing that a culture has been established in an educational institution that places its highest value on complying with rules and regulations instead of creating engaging learning experiences for students.

Many school systems across the country suffer from similar dysfunctional cultures. Fortunately, some of them are beginning to change by embracing the concept of school empowerment. (Other terms have been used for similar concepts, such as decentralization, school autonomy, site-based budgeting and school-based management.)

School empowerment consists of a set of principles that are woven into the fabric of the educational institution. These principles affect organizational structure, the roles and responsibilities of the people in the institution, the way that people think about their own responsibilities, how people relate to each other, as well as the functions and the activities of the institution.

Student learning is the central organizing principle of school empowerment. The roles and responsibilities of all members of the institution – not just educators — are coordinated to impact student learning. All functions and activities of the institution are deliberately planned and organized to ensure that the entire institution is committed to student learning.

There is a story about President Kennedy visiting NASA shortly after establishing the goal of putting an American on the moon within the decade. While in the men’s room he encountered a janitor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m working to put a man on the moon.”

Similarly, school empowerment makes everyone in the institution responsible for student learning.

School empowerment recognizes that at any school the principal, the teachers, and other school staff understand their students best, and they can best determine how their students should be educated. For that reason the great majority of the responsibility for student learning is placed at the school level.

In addition, the great majority of all funds appropriated for education is distributed equitably to the individual schools to ensure that schools have sufficient resources to fulfill their educational responsibilities. The principal at each school has the authority to decide how to expend school funds.

In addition to budgetary responsibility, the principal is responsible for making all decisions that impact student learning. However, school empowerment envisions the principal not as a dictator, but as a collaborative leader who engages teachers and other school staff, as well as other stakeholders, in making decisions about how the school will operate to educate its students. For example, the principal encourages substantial collaboration among teachers to develop the school’s educational program. Since teachers are so involved, they gain a feeling of ownership of the educational program. When they implement it in their classrooms they perform at high levels.

The roles of the district offices and the central office change radically under school empowerment. Instead of directing the activities of the schools, most of their responsibility is to support the schools because that is where the learning occurs. This role change underscores the importance of training, which is needed by everyone in the institution. People must learn new ways of thinking and new ways of operating that are consistent with the culture change underlying school empowerment.

School empowerment cannot succeed without a strong commitment from leadership at the top levels of the Department of Education. More important, however, is the commitment at the “grassroots” level of teachers and other school staff. In addition, the support of the public is needed to create the political will to sustain school empowerment efforts over the long term and make it a reality.

The transformative culture change needed to create empowered schools will take years of effort by many people. It is still so early in the process that even the path for Hawaii to reach the goal of empowered schools has not yet been conceived. Educators, child advocates, legislators, others policymakers, and the public are encouraged to learn more about school empowerment and to get involved in shaping Hawaii’s efforts to achieve it. School empowerment offers everyone the opportunity to work toward excellence in education that will benefit all of Hawaii’s children.

The Education Institute of Hawaii (EIH) will continue to organize events and provide information about school empowerment to educators and the public. For more information about EIH and school empowerment, you may visit its website.

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