Education reform in Hawaii is on a really rocky path. Some things, like universal early childhood education, are going way too slow.

One really crucial thing is going too fast. Hawaii’s educators and politicians have fallen head over heels for the Common Core.

It may seem odd to worry that the DOE is actually moving too fast on something. Disorienting or not, it’s true. The Core has been oversold and its flaws taken too lightly.

homeless preschool without type

A preschool student plays in a Honolulu park.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Hawaii has unconscionably missed the boat on universal early childhood education. Studies show that early childhood programs work really well, especially for poor children. They do much more than simply improve test scores.

Thirty-nine states already have universal early education programs. Many have been around for a long time. Oklahoma, politically about as far away from blue state of Hawaii as you can get, is the pioneer.

So much for this state’s progressive reputation.

In fact, Hawaii has gone backwards. The state has a far less comprehensive early childhood education program than it did five years ago.

In short, the state is at square one, and there are all kinds of reasons to worry that square two is far, far away. The constitutional amendment that would have allowed the state to pay private preschools to participate in the program, which is the way most states do it, went down to defeat.

So the only alternative is for the state to run the program entirely through the DOE and public schools.

It’s not at all clear that enough legislators are committed to universal early childhood education. Even if they are, they will need to commit a chunk of money and come up with a plan.

Overheated Enthusiasm

Whatever the details, the program will have to rely on the beleaguered, cumbersome DOE to make it happen. The DOE has plenty of more politically pressing education reforms to worry about — like the Common Core, which I talk about later. And then there may very well be those familiar union disputes and convoluted hiring processes.

Hawaii likely will adopt some sort of comprehensive program, but it’s sad that while the state has dithered about a universal pre-K program, thousands of kids across the country have benefitted from them. It is even sadder that thousands more in Hawaii will lose out before this state’s program ever gets off the ground, which will not be anytime soon.

If the state’s early education situation is about neglect, Hawaii’s commitment to the Common Core is about overheated enthusiasm.

The Common Core has become the single most important driver of national educational reform. The Core is a set of math and English grade-level standards for all children from kindergarten through high school.

Common Core State Standards Initiative

The Common Core test standards have been controversial.

The standardized statewide tests that will be used to measure student success will all be based on the Core’s standards. Teachers will be evaluated, and to some extent paid, based on how successful their students do on these tests.

Though the Core was developed through the auspices of the National Governors Association and the National Council of Chief State School Officers, it is outgrowth of the Bush-Obama approach to educational reform. The emphasis is on standards, testing, overall on rationalizing and modernizing education.

The standards are not federal mandates, but the Obama administration enthusiastically supports them and makes it difficult for states that do not adopt them.  Oklahoma lost $29 million of federal education money when it reneged on its agreement to adopt the Core.

Hawaii is well down the Common Core path. The curriculum based on these standards is already in place. By 2015 the state’s standardized tests will be based on Core standards. According to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the Core “may prove to be the single greatest thing to happen to public education since Brown v. Board of Education.”

That’s the sort of best-thing-since-sliced-bread reformer language that makes advocates shimmy. It should make the rest of us nervous and at least a little skeptical.

A “Toxic Brand”

Nationally there is a strong backlash to the Core that caught many of its proponents off guard. Initially most states adopted the Core with little controversy and hardly any publicity. Now the Core has become what Frederick H. Hess, an American Enterprise Institute’s education expert, calls “a toxic brand.”

Some of this is for political reasons. Like virtually every other important policy, this one has become partisan, especially among conservatives. Many Republican governors who initially supported the Core have changed their minds. No big surprise, two of the most prominent, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, are running for president.

But the backlash is far more significant and meritorious than that. Parents, unions and influential education experts have also fueled it. Many object to the arrogance of the top-down reformers. Teachers complain that the Core creates unfair burdens and expectations. In fact there is a large, well-reasoned literature that criticizes the Core’s entire approach to education.

The resisters and critics are important because they shine the light on several of the Core’s serious flaws that definitely impact on Hawaii.  There are at least four of them.

First, one of the Core’s fundamental assumptions, which is that standardized testing improves a student’s education, is still an aspiration without evidence.   Nationally scores have hardly changed since this kind of testing began as part of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind.  After close to 15 years of testing, there are still strong reasons to question its usefulness.

Hawaii’s education reformers need to reduce their expectations and cool their jets.

Second, using student test scores to improve teaching does not make for better teachers. It simply identifies teachers in classes with low test scores and quite possibly punishes them by giving them smaller salary increases.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that teachers should be held accountable for their students’ scores. Fine, but big deal. That does not improve teaching. As other model education countries like Finland have shown, the best way to improve teachers is to train them better in the first place, build a school climate that gives teachers the opportunity to observe one another, and offer resources to improve.

Third, the Core threatens to come into conflict with other important educational reforms, in Hawaii’s case the attempt to decentralize the state’s education system and give more power to the schools themselves.

Reformers here have been trying to do this for years. Republicans, Democrats, good government folks, they all see the Department of Education as the unyielding monster.

Recently a private group, The Education Institute of Hawaii, has emerged to advocate decentralization and school empowerment. Gov. Ige made a campaign pledge to changing the state’s school funding formula so that principals have more control.

As a Metallica fan might put it, the monster lives. The Common Core heavily leans toward centralization, and the monster is in charge. It may be possible to find the right balance between school empowerment and the requirements of the Core, but as the school principals’ recent complaints about the DOE and the DOE’s rather dismissive responses show, the accommodation will be a struggle with the school empowerment people at a disadvantage.

That is an even more serious problem, because research shows that a school’s principal can make a significant difference.

What Does Bill Gates Know?

Fourth, the Core ignores the problems that affect education the most: poverty and inequality.

Socioeconomic status is by far the most important predictor of a child’s success in school.  The Core, like virtually all of the Obama administration’s reforms, does not speak to that fundamentals issue.

Sure, school reform can help poor kids. Early childhood education is a great example, as are the standout public and charter schools in tough neighborhoods.  But school reform, no matter how well conceived, can only do a small part of the work.

The best thing that can happen is that the Core becomes the focus of a broad and open discussion of educational reform.

But here is the biggest indicator that the state should slow down. Last June The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which spent $150 million (not a misprint) to develop the Core, recommended that states hold off for two years before fully implementing it. In particular the foundation wants the states to hold off using the new standardized tests.

Hawaii has ignored this recommendation. Hey, what does Bill Gates know?

The Core in Hawaii is not going to go away. In fact there are some very good things about it.  The learning standards are well conceived.

But because of its flaws, Hawaii’s education reformers need to reduce their expectations and cool their jets.

The best thing that can happen is that the Core becomes the focus of a broad and open discussion of educational reform.  That makes it less of a solution and more a part of a journey.

Whatever its advocates say, there is no reason to assume that the Core should be any more than that. Full speed ahead is good only if we are dead sure that we are heading in the right direction. And with the Core, that’s definitely not the case.


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