Reforming Our Education System In The Wake Of The Pandemic - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Susana Browne

Susana Browne works with UH Manoa supervising Maui teacher candidates in the Statewide Elementary Education program. She was the education director at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center for 18 years and helped to start and sustain the only fully arts-integrated public school in Hawaii, Pomaikai Elementary in Kahului.

In over 35 years of being active in education in Hawaii, I have seen multiple attempts at reimagining our education system. To be honest, I feel that we are closer to imagining a better future for our students now, in 2021, than we have ever been before.

Yes, during the pandemic shutdown of schools we learned many lessons about the gaps in the promise of providing all students with an equal opportunity for education.

We also learned that our teachers and principals are some of the best in the country. They had the most challenging year of their careers and they stuck it out, learned new technology skills and persevered with teaching kids on small screens.

Most people in Hawaii now have a new appreciation for teachers. Parents, principals and teachers are working together, probably closer than they ever have before. As such, we are in an optimal moment to look closely at our public education system and further develop our strengths as we discard the baggage that prevents us from providing a 21st century education to our P-21 students.

On top of that, we have resources given the news this week that — using grant money from the federal government — Gov. David Ige has just formed the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Advisory Group. The group is, he said, designed “to collaborate and design Hawaii’s approach to reinventing and transforming education during this challenging time. We are looking to fund programs that inspire and promote innovation in education.”

But what does “innovation in education” look like? Are we going to operate on yesterday’s crisis or look forward to making significant changes?

Are we ready to listen to what teachers and principals need to provide students with a 21st century education?

How do we make sure that bureaucracy does not get in the way and start dictating “new and improved” ways of educating our children?


Now seems like the perfect time to restructure the top-down system that has long been in place in Hawaii. Ideally, each county would be its own school district with its own board of education — a board that absolutely must include educators as members.

These systemic changes have been discussed for decades and involve major stakeholders shifting some of the power from Honolulu to better support individual schools.

Innovation could also involve eliminating many of the Department of Education’s bureaucratic positions in order to provide more support for principals.

Principal Daniel J. Caluya holds student's hand during end of day protocol at Na Wai Ola Public Charter School, located in Mountain View, HI 10/27/13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
Principal Daniel J. Caluya held a student’s hand during end-of-day protocol at Na Wai Ola Public Charter School in Mountain View. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

No one in our educational system has a harder job than the principal of each public school. Principals are responsible for smoothly running a complicated organization: keeping the buildings functional and safe, hiring and dismissing teachers and other staff, managing a budget and being an effective leader.

They need and deserve more training before and during their tenure, as well as an assistant who they have the power to choose.

Talk to any principal and they will tell you what is needed to provide students with a first-class education.

An effective principal is a dynamic leader. That means that he or she listens to and supports the instructional staff. Gives teachers time and freedom to truly collaborate. Provides professional development that encourages innovation.

According to the article “What Great Principals Really Do” in the latest issue of the journal of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, “A school’s success is largely determined by the effectiveness of its principal — decades of research have made this clear.”

Honoring Each School’s Identity

Now let’s look at the inside of the school and how it functions. Every school in Hawaii has its own culture. The neighborhood and parents influence that culture, but even stronger forces are the principal, teachers and the way the decision-making is organized.

Is it a shared leadership structure or top down?  Are teachers encouraged to be leaders or are they relegated to staying in their rooms and being quiet? Do teachers have a voice in innovative curriculum and professional development?

Is your neighborhood school living in the 20th or the 21st century?

Looking at model schools and keeping abreast of the latest research, we see that both education and industry are being restructured to provide workers with more autonomy, which also means workers have more of a voice in what happens in their environment.

Studies in all areas of the workplace show that productivity and a sense of well-being increase when workers have a stake in the decision-making, leading not only to more worker independence, but also to more collaboration.

If we can provide professional development to teachers and principals on how to structure a successful school, we can begin to make some big changes. A word of caution, though: These solutions will take time, energy, money and the will to be innovative.

We need to define and understand what innovation is. It means inspiring students to find their passion and be creative. For students to be creative, teachers need the time and space to develop their own creativity. There is a myriad of resources available for helping teachers develop the twenty-first-century skills of communication, collaboration, communication and cultural awareness. We can look within our own state for help supporting and inspiring teachers.

In The Classroom

Let’s move now to the classroom. What would you like to see there? Do you want your children to be encouraged to be creative and find their voices, discover their passions? What about learning to effectively communicate, both in writing and orally?

How will your child learn collaboration, resilience, responsibility? These are skills that the workplace is demanding and that honestly, our schools are falling short on providing.

On campus at Waikoloa Middle School. Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat

If we truly want to reinvent and transform education, revamping the curriculum will be necessary. We have been working on this one since public education began in America over 150 years ago. Because the federal government allocates funding for education, it has taken on the role of deciding what is needed in education.

In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to develop assessments in basic skills. To receive federal school funding, states had to give these assessments to all students at select grade levels. Although we have had several presidents since 2001, the premise has remained the same: If states want federal funding, they must administer standardized tests.

These tests were developed by educational publishers, and states bought them at great expense. There has long been discussion in Hawaii about how the test is biased toward students who live on the continent, with little regard for our island communities. The tests, which begin in third grade, are administered exactly like college entrance exams: no talking and not getting out of your seat for any reason.

It seemed logical that in this year, the 2020-21 pandemic school year, we could use other kinds of assessments to determine where our kids are in their learning journeys. Most have lost huge chunks of their normal learning this year due to either not being in school at all or having most of school online. It was a big surprise to see that students are still being required to take these tests. In Hawaii it is the Smarter Balanced Assessment. It is heartbreaking to see students struggling with this added pressure on top of everything else they have endured.

In April one of the Maui teacher candidates in the UH Manoa Elementary Education program had this to say about the test: “My mentor has been focusing on preparing the students to take a practice test to get them familiar with the SBA in three subjects: math, writing and reading. It was nerve-racking and uncomfortable to see my third-grade students take the practice test since teachers are not allowed to help their students in any way. Based on their body language and facial expressions, I could tell some of them were having trouble with the questions and wanted to ask for help. Unfortunately, teachers cannot interfere during SBA.”

There are multiple ways to assess what students know and are able to do. Teachers do this all day long, every day of the school year, by observing and listening to students and reviewing projects and completed assignments. Digital portfolios have proven to be an effective means of assessment.

Change is happening in all corners of our country. This could be the year that states tell the federal government that they will report on student achievement without those biased anxiety-causing exams.

Parents can pressure schools, principals and the Board of Education to do just that. What have we got to lose?

Share Your Ideas

We are in an exciting time for change and innovation. Education is an area that affects every single person. Let’s take advantage of this new hope and the dollars available to make significant change that has an impact.

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About the Author

Susana Browne

Susana Browne works with UH Manoa supervising Maui teacher candidates in the Statewide Elementary Education program. She was the education director at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center for 18 years and helped to start and sustain the only fully arts-integrated public school in Hawaii, Pomaikai Elementary in Kahului.

Latest Comments (0)

Although this article seem carefully thought out and provides somewhat of a blueprint for what the public wants for their children, the reality is our public school system is embroiled in political whim and opinion.  Unfortunately, state politicians have their hands in every aspect of financing and how the schools should teach.  The first thing that needs to happen to reform the public school system is decentralization.  Give the schools back to the counties to run like small businesses, devoid of centralized politics.  Each school and district can then make decisions within guidelines and actually have a say in how things are run.  By the same standard they can be held accountable.  What the pandemic showed me is that my child did better with a home school program, versus virtual teaching that became distant and boring.  As parents we sacrificed, tried our best to teach and guide during the pandemic.  If anyone deserves a bonus it's not the teachers, it should be those parents that cared for their kids while schools where closed.  The pandemic also showed how much better private schools adjusted while public floundered.  

wailani1961 · 2 years ago

1. Is the DOE capable?2. Is the DOE successful? 3. Is the DOE accountable?4. Is the DOE collaborative?5. Is the DOE inclusive of stakeholders?6.  Is the DOE ready for change, real change?7.  Is the DOE receptive?This is why we need to hire the right people, get rid of the riff raff, and pave a better way.Principals and teachers are the very core!  Allow them to use their skills and knowledge to make change happen!Talk about parents wanting the schools to be babysitters, well, principals and teachers are tired of the bureaucracy being their unnecessary babysitters!  The DOE is too top heavy.  Do we need complex superintendents? Does the state office need assistant superintendents? Someone needs to take a hard look, like our Education Committees started during this Legislative Session!  Mahalo! · 2 years ago

Are we overthinking the problem! Maybe, just maybe, the establishment is the problem. We have a culture of using schools for babysitting. Too many parents think that education ends at then of the school day. Parents have a responsibility to make sure their child does homework, reads , and asks questions on anything. Besides TV what else do these parents share? 

Richard · 2 years ago

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