As the Hawaii Department of Education begins the ambitious task of shaping a new 10-year strategic plan, it’s looking to build off the existing plan while setting new priorities that could include things like dual credit participation.

The time frame for Superintendent Christina Kishimoto’s so-called “Promise Plan” will cover 2020 to 2030, though it will be fragmented into three-year “check points” at 2023 and 2026. The plan is unprecedented in span, as the current strategic plan covers 2017 to 2020 and the one before that, 2012 to 2015.

As Kishimoto, who took over leadership of the DOE in August 2017, looks to the next 10 years, however, it’s clear the single-district public school system is falling short of meeting benchmarks established in the current strategic plan, which will sunset next year.

DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto during DOE board meeting.
DOE Superintendent Christina Kishimoto is looking ahead 10 years in her new strategic plan. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Under previous school superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, the DOE chose 14 indicators of student success, such as math and language arts proficiency, chronic absenteeism and five-year teacher retention.

“Some of those targets we have not met, and I think it’s an opportunity to look at them and to assess where we are and have some hard conversations (about) things we need to do a little more,” said Rodney Luke, the DOE’s assistant superintendent in the office of strategy, innovation and performance.

The DOE’s 2017-20 strategic plan is ambitious. It calls for nearly halving the state’s chronic absenteeism rate from 15% to 9%; increasing the college-going rate from 56% to 62%; and boosting the five-year teacher retention rate from 52% to 60%.

Hawaii’s chronic absenteeism rate, while declining at several schools, has flatlined around 15%. The college-going rate has remained steady at around 55% and five-year teacher retention has actually gone down from about 54% in 2017-18 to 51% in 2018-19.

The percentage of kids meeting math achievement targets on Hawaii’s statewide assessment known as Smarter Balanced Assessment has also remained flat at 42%, despite a target set for 54% by 2020, and not risen above 54% in English language arts despite a target of 61% by 2020.

Luke, a former complex area superintendent, school principal and teacher who assumed his current role in May 2018, acknowledges many of these targets are “aspirational” and that it’s “a work in progress.”

“I think there’s many facets of perhaps why we’re not there,” he said.

Changed Federal Policy

The shaping of the current strategic plan coincided with a transitional time in federal education law: a move away from No Child Left Behind, which emphasized student test scores and academic measures, to its next iteration, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives state more freedom to determine priorities.

Hawaii’s 2017-20 plan took eight months to create. The agency convened 108 focus groups, solicited feedback from 1,200 participants and gathered more than 1,400 survey responses before submitting the plan to the Board of Education.

By the time the board voted to approve the strategic plan in December 2016, the BOE had already decided it would not renew Matayoshi’s contract.

When Kishimoto took over, she inherited a three-year strategic plan she had no hand in shaping.

The plan also coincided with two other key documents: a “blueprint” for public education drafted by a team selected by Gov. David Ige and the state’s ESSA plan, which is its accountability plan to receive federal funding for high-needs schools.

Amy Perruso, a high school history teacher and Hawaii state representative, said one shortcoming of the current strategic plan was holding students to unrealistic standards. It creates a false impression to members of the public that if schools aren’t living up to these standards, they’re not doing the work, she said.

“I think that’s a misguided approach because you’re setting up the schools to fail,” she said.

“I don’t think parents really care about test scores. They care about whole-child education, who their child is becoming and what they’re getting out of school.”

New Priorities On the Way

An initial draft of the DOE “Promise Plan” is expected by fall before a final draft is submitted to the board of education early next year for approval. With the DOE soliciting community feedback for its new plan up until August 1, education advocates are urging some fidelity to the current strategic plan.

A July 9 feedback session held at Halau Inana to provide input on the DOE’s next strategic plan. The session was one of several co-organized by the groups HawaiiKidsCAN, TFA Hawaii, Hope Street Group and Elemental Excelerator. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

“We participated in past strategic plan planning and community sessions and know that it takes a tremendous effort to update a plan,” states a letter signed by education advocacy groups like He’e Coalition, HawaiiKidsCAN and Hawaii Appleseed, in April 2019 testimony to the board.

“Most of all, we want to make sure our state’s focus remains on equity and supporting our high-need students,” the groups wrote, pointing out a lack of improvements in chronic absenteeism and narrowing the achievement gap.

In remarks to the board at that same meeting, Kishimoto said there were measures among the 14 indicators the DOE had learned from but others that outlived their purpose, according to minutes of the meeting.

She cited “civic engagement” and “civic voice” as other possible metrics of student success, and the need to “design (schools) differently for different communities.” She expressed a desire to focus on innovation grants, conferences and increased attention to special education, multilingualism and computer science, according to the minutes.

DOE materials outlining the Promise Plan timeframe suggests the baseline metrics the department believes are worth tracking over the next 10 years: things like chronic absenteeism, the math and language arts achievement gap and career and technical pathway completion.

The materials also suggest new priorities could be set, such as Advanced Placement course completion and high school-college dual credit participation.

The DOE is encouraging outside feedback sessions to gather input around how the DOE can fulfill five broad themes: Hawaii, equity, innovation, school design and empowerment.

But some school administrators acknowledge that coaxing instructors to shift away from an assessments-oriented mindset won’t be so easy.

“I believe we’re moving in the right direction,” said Chad Farias, superintendent for the Kau-Keaau-Pahoa complex area on the Big Island, adding that themes of “empowerment” and “school innovation” will really be the challenge.

“The real question is, are our leaders trained and ready for that type of freedom? And two, have they been in this No Child Left Behind mentality for so long that we have to retool them to be innovative and allow them to go and stub their toe in trying new things?”

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