A revised federal law will transfer some power to individual states to determine how their schools should be reformed – and Hawaii principals want a piece of the action.

Since last spring, the state has been preparing for the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is required to be fully implemented in the 2017-18 school year.

Even as the state Department of Education and a governor’s task force pursue reform plans almost simultaneously, the principals have been holding their own forums to talk about what changes are needed in the islands’ public schools.

Washington Middle School principal Mike Harano, right, works in small groups inside library. 19 nov 2016
Washington Middle School principal Michael Harano, right, works in a small group inside the school’s library during a principals’ forum. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“ESSA is really an opportunity for principals to have access to resources to help us to raise student achievement,” said Naomi Matsuzaki, a retired principal and Hawaii executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Principals, she noted, are “mentioned 167 times in the law.”

The principals hope they will be able to help their teachers and schools better understand why certain ESSA-related reforms are enacted and be more unified in carrying them out, and they may be making headway in having their input considered.

The state Department of Education has been working on a review and extension of its joint DOE/Board of Education 2011-18 strategic plan, and a governor’s task force has been assessing the state’s current public school system and identifying areas of need, ultimately creating a Hawaii “blueprint” for public education –  from early learning to K-12 to higher education.

Final drafts of both plans are set to be discussed at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting and are meant to be incorporated into the state’s ESSA implementation plan, a document that needs to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education in the spring to receive federal funding.

New Law Gives Principals An Opportunity

The Every Student Succeeds Act replaces No Child Left Behind, a law that some principals felt was restrictive and punitive, said Michael Harano, principal of Washington Middle School in Honolulu.

Under the old act, students had to be tested every year from third to eighth grades in math and English, and once in high school. They also had to be tested in science at least once in elementary, middle and high school.

Schools were required to improve their students’ performance – in fact, the act required that students be 100 percent proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year – and their test results were tied to educators’ evaluations.

Washington Middle School ESSA principals administrators Library1. 19 nov 2016
A series of forums hosted by two principal associations have provided an outlet for school leaders to voice their thoughts on how the Every Student Succeeds Act should be implemented. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Half of my evaluation is not met because my test scores doesn’t meet the appropriate level of proficiency,” Harano said. “I’m the principal of the year, and half of my evaluation is not met.”

ESSA will transfer power back to the states to decide how schools should be held accountable and supported, how educators should be evaluated and how students should be tested.

“Now as a state, we feel that we have a better say in what we’re going to do – how is education going to be reformed,” Harano said.

Under ESSA, students will still need to be tested in the same grades and subject areas that NCLB required, but states can determine when and how they administer those tests, in addition to what kind of assessments they use.

“We can be compliant and we can follow, but to really be committed to what we are trying to do, we feel that we need to be involved in the total process, all the way to implementation.” — Michael Harano, principal of Washington Middle School

In addition, states can set their own goals in measuring academic achievement, student growth and graduation rates.

Taking advantage of the opportunity ESSA provides the states, the Hawaii Association of Secondary School Administrators and the Hawaii Elementary and Middle School Administrators Association teamed up to start holding the forums at the beginning of this school year.

The group of 40 to 50 principals and vice principals focused on what they considered to be the seven main areas that the law is designed to support: curriculum standards, school-level accountability, student assessment, school-level leadership, struggling students, innovation/creativity and resources.

For each of those elements, the group identified what an ideal situation would be, what prevents educators and students from reaching that ideal situation and a possible solution to overcome that challenge, said Matsuzaki.

Take school-level accountability as an example. While schools, under ESSA, could develop measures besides standardized tests to assess how their students are doing, school leaders don’t know much about the options available to develop their own system, Harano said.

By identifying why schools may struggle with developing their own accountability systems — and a solution to that problem such as providing training and mentoring for principals and teachers – leaders can make better decisions about what they decide to put in place, he said.

ESSA also requires that states adopt challenging academic standards in reading, math and science that are aligned to requirements to enter college and to technical standards. But teachers don’t have time to meet with other colleagues to help them deconstruct and implement curriculum standards and determine appropriate evaluations.

The solution, according to the group, is to have a system in every school where teachers can regularly meet with each other and a coach to better understand the standards and review their assessment data. This way, they can figure out what instructional strategies would be appropriate to use.

Principals at the forums said they want support in and outside the DOE because they often don’t know what’s allowed, Matsuzaki said.

Many times, principals seek support outside the DOE because community members tend to be more attuned to what’s going to work for their children. That’s something she did when she was principal of Kahaluu Elementary School. Community organizations were involved in having culturally appropriate programs within the school so students could understand and apply what they learned to real-life situations.

Wanting To Be Heard

The DOE and the governor’s ESSA task force also held meetings with community members and stakeholders, and while there were opportunities to participate, some principals felt their voices were not sufficiently heard.

“It felt like something that was developed for me, not developed by me and my school,” Harano said at a recent Board of Education meeting where he gave a presentation on the group’s progress.

“We can be compliant and we can follow, but to really be committed to what we are trying to do, we feel that we need to be involved in the total process, all the way to implementation,” he said.

Wide view Board of Education Meeting. 17 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Board of Education members, seen here meeting last year, recently heard a presentation from the principals’ group. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Darrel Galera, chairman of the governor’s ESSA task force and a BOE member, said he supports the principals’ work because they’re doing it independently of the BOE, DOE or a union.

We want to make sure that in the future that the system provides meaningful ways for teachers to have input, for principals to have input, for the students to have input,” Galera said.

While information and strategies resulting from the forums will be used by the principals and vice principals for planning at their own schools, the group also shared its results with DOE leadership so it can be part of the state’s ESSA plan, said Lorelei Aiwohi, principal of Kalakaua Middle School and president of the Hawaii Association of Secondary School Administrators.

“As a principal, I wanted to advocate that there would be a strong base for those 21st century skills that would naturally foster innovation and creativity in schools.” — Debra Hatada, Kaimiloa Elementary School

Tammi Oyadomari-Chun, assistant superintendent for the Office of Strategy, Innovation and Performance, said information from the principal forums has been incorporated into the state’s strategic plan.

Debra Hatada, principal of Kaimiloa Elementary School, said she attended meetings held by the DOE and the governor’s task force, as well as the principal forums.

At all of them, Hatada said she wants to see the state’s accountability system look at the whole child, rather than just achievement scores.  

“When you think about innovation and creativity, it’s not only measured by achievement scores but a big part of having students who are innovative and creative is working on those soft skills,” she said. “And so I guess that’s where, as a principal, I wanted to advocate that there would be a strong base for those 21st century skills that would naturally foster innovation and creativity in schools.”

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