Anyone following education news in the state lately knows there’s no shortage of plans for improving public schools.

There’s the Strategic Plan for 2017-2020 approved in December by the Hawaii Board of Education; Hawaii’s Blueprint for Education released in March by a task force selected by Gov. David Ige; and the state’s plan to qualify for federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act that the board voted to approve last week.

The plans are supposed to complement and build off one another and chart a path for the future of public education in the state.

Educators and community members attend a recent Board of Education meeting at the Hawaii Department of Education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“During the last 15 months, the focus on transforming public education in Hawaii has been unprecedented, resulting in three extremely significant education plans,” said Darrel Galera, a retired teacher and principal and former board of education member who sits on the advisory council for the Education Institute of Hawaii.

So, what exactly is in each of these plans? And how do they relate to one another? Here’s an overview:

• Let’s start with the Strategic Plan for 2017-20. What is it?

This serves as the new governing document for public education in Hawaii. It’s an update from the prior strategic plan for 2012-2018. It lays out the expectations and goals for the public school system, including empowering students through “relevant, rigorous learning opportunities that incorporate students’ voices” and “creative problem solving” that draws upon students’ life experiences.

The updated strategic plan was approved shortly after the federal ESSA was signed into law in December 2015, replacing the No Child Left Behind Act, which heavily emphasized standardized testing and results.

The strategic plan also established certain new “success indicators” such as reducing the level of chronic absenteeism, increasing the percentage at which students receiving special education services are included in general education classrooms; increasing the percentage of teacher positions filled before the start of the school year and monitoring the percentage of teachers retained after five years. (Clarification: A previous version of this story said one such success indicator is tied to increasing special ed services for students. In fact, it is connected to the rate at which the students are included in the general classroom.)

The plan promotes a “well-rounded education that expands emphasis beyond reading and mathematics” to reflect modified accountability measures under ESSA, which provides greater control to the states to measure student achievement.

Additionally, Hawaii’s new strategic plan also promotes the teaching of Hawaiian language and culture and multilingualism in the schools.

Hawaii’s Board of Education voted to approve the plan in December. Some advocates at the time, however, expressed the need for the plan to include more specifics on how to achieve certain goals.

• So, the strategic plan took into account ESSA. What exactly does this new federal law do?

ESSA is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that provides federal funding to states that can demonstrate need-based aid for struggling schools. Though widely championed as removing the burden of assessment-based achievement and returning control to the states to measure student achievement, the new law still sets certain parameters.

ESSA does not get rid of tests altogether — it still requires testing in reading and math in third through eighth grades and high school, but dials back some of the frenzy around assessments. It also requires states to come up with improvement plans for schools in which certain subgroups of students are consistently underperforming.

Board of Education building2. 10 jan 2017
Hawaii Department of Education headquarters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

What ESSA does is “provide room for schools to describe their current status based on more than just a test score,” said Catherine Kilborn, principal at Baldwin High School in Maui.

“Our kids compete with kids around the world. Having some kind of test that lets us measure where we stand is important, but it’s not everything,” she said.

Broadly speaking, the strategic plan forms the basis for Hawaii’s application for federal funding under ESSA in the 2017-18 school year.

• Will ESSA actually change much?

That depends on whom you ask.

It’s important to note that Hawaii in 2010 was granted a four-year, $75 million Race to the Top grant that cleared it of No Child Left Behind’s most onerous requirements. Through the development of a Common Core curriculum, the state was able to persuade federal officials it could devise its own set of expectations for math and English literacy.

So it’s not entirely clear how much ESSA will change the landscape in Hawaii.

“ESSA was always more important for other states than for us,” said Jim Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center. “ESSA in its current form kind of incorporates the waivers and flexibilities we already had.”

That said, the new federal policy gives more leeway to states to foster innovation in the classrooms.

“In the broader vision, it was moving to return the power over decisions made for children really close to those children,” said Catherine Payne, chair of the Hawaii Public Charter School Commission. “This was the first time (the law) removed restrictive language as opposed to adding more restrictive language. This is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to really try new things.”

• What’s been Hawaii’s response to these changes on the national front?

Gov. David Ige has been vocal about embracing a new education approach. As the governor said in his 2017 State of the State Address, schools should “go beyond test scores and a one size-fits-all approach.”

“We need a school system that truly prepares students to think creatively and to be problem solvers and innovators,” he said in January.

In April 2016, the governor convened an independent task force consisting of teachers, principals, parents and advocates to help the state come up with an ESSA “blueprint.” The 19-member committee gathered input from several thousand people from around the state to come up with a long-range vision for education reform.

• What’s in that Hawaii Blueprint for Education?

The blueprint has been billed as “aspirational,” “long-range” and one which “broadly” outlines the state’s educational goals.

Specifically, it stresses the importance of features like publicly funded preschool and teacher training and embraces alternatives to Hawaii’s “Smarter Balanced Assessments”  through project portfolios and so-called “authentic assessments” that measure research, writing, creativity and analytical skills.

“The Hawaii public schools will create and sustain a culture that values innovation and unleashes curiosity and creativity in all learners,” states the blueprint. “Innovation by charter schools will be embraced and supported. Leadership development will focus on engagement, empowerment, and innovative practices and approaches in leading, teaching, and learning.”

Because it’s so broadly worded and long-ranging, some members of the governor’s ESSA task force have acknowledged the limits of its incorporation into the Department of Education’s comprehensive ESSA plan.  The ESSA plan will be submitted to the federal government for approval.

“The hope was that some of the same themes and ideas that were included in the ESSA plan conversations would be adopted by the Department of Education,” said state Rep. Takashi Ohno. “I think there’s no shortage of ideas. We tried our best to put it together, knowing that there are limits on what the outcome could be.”

• How much does the state’s ESSA plan align with the task force’s blueprint?  

That too depends on whom you ask.

DOE officials have been quick to point out the state’s plan matches up with the blueprint and its long-range goals. They also express the need for the state to see the bigger picture.

“Hawaii’s plan should be driving what we’re doing, and the federal plan is the subset of what supports Hawaii’s plan, not the other way around,” Keith Hayashi, the interim superintendent and principal of Waipahu High School who also served on the governor’s task force, said at a recent board meeting.

Yet others have said the state ESSA plan didn’t go far enough in adopting the recommendations outlined in the blueprint.

John Sosa, executive director of the Education Institute of Hawaii, told board members the state’s plan still relies too heavily on standardized test scores as “measures of success” without offering a clear outline of how it would promote alternative assessments.

“The plan could benefit from a more thorough review of the assessment component as the current plan relies almost exclusively on the standardized test scores as a measure of success,” he said.

Parent and task force member Stephen Terstegge testified that the department’s plan “doesn’t really show any new shift in thinking,” pointing out its silence on such topics as early learning and parent engagement.

The Board of Education plans to submit the ESSA plan to the federal government by a Sept. 18 deadline. Until then, it can undergo additional changes. Ige can opt to sign the plan, but the state can still submit the proposal to the feds without his signature.

Hawaii would receive an estimated $81.3 million under ESSA funding for fiscal year 2017.

Federal funding overall accounts for about 14 percent of the Department of Education’s total $1.9 billion budget.

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