Insight: Public schools need flexibility, but be clear about what kind


This op-ed, which ran in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, was authored by organizational partners Bill Reeves of The Learning Coalition and Terry George of The Harold K.L. Castle Foundation.

​​​We are excited by the Mamoru and Aiko Takitani Foundation's launch of the Education Institute of Hawaii. The result is an important discussion on where our public school system heads next.

Following "Furlough Fridays," the public called on Hawaii's schools to do more with less. And they have largely delivered.

Last year, Hawaii's fourth-graders surpassed the national average in math on the National Assessment of Education Progress for the first time, moving from the 48th lowest-performing state in the country in 2003 to the 23rd.

Currently 82 percent of our students graduate on time with a regular diploma, and 63 percent of graduates enroll in college within 16 months of graduation.

Each year, fewer students require remediation at the University of Hawaii. Participation in Advanced Placement courses has jumped 32 percent within the last five years. And rates of chronic absenteeism and student disciplinary infractions have fallen significantly.

Leaders navigate the system through a journey to higher student outcomes. Four years ago, school performance and classroom instruction lagged. The right remedy was to build a strong infrastructure focused on student learning. Performance gains followed implementation of key strategies to raise student expectations, strengthen instruction and be data-driven. Data have increased transparency and accountability. It is now time to increase school flexibility.

But in a system where principals already set academic direction, prepare their budget, and have some authority to hire and fire staff, what more flexibility is needed? And what theory of action are we pursuing?

Perhaps we can learn from school districts around the world that have rapidly improved.

McKinsey and Co.'s recent study entitled "How the World's Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better" offers several important lessons.

First, each system had stable executive leadership over many years. Next, every single system pursued six core strategies year after year that look quite similar to the changes already underway in Hawaii. And finally, they demonstrated that the system can prescribe adequacy but needs to unleash greatness.

In other words, systems that moved from low to adequate performance pursued tight, top-down approaches. But to move to good — or even great — performance, schools and teachers took on increased responsibility to shape instructional practice.

We see three implications for Hawaii:

  • Preserving the Strategic Plan​ ensures consistency.
  • By demonstrating a strong foundation of shared leadership, curriculum, instruction and assessment as well as student results, schools should earn flexibility.
  • Be clear on what type of flexibility is earned. For instance, high-performing schools deserve more control over their bell schedule, how teacher-leaders take on added responsibility, and to prevent marginal teachers with seniority from transferring in.

Let's also be smarter about the state office, complex area and school. This proposed approach frees schools with strong performance records to innovate. But support and oversight remain for schools with erratic performance.

The state must continue setting systemwide direction via academic standards and performance data to hold schools accountable. We should also guarantee a base level of equitable resources and operational supports statewide, as well as provide economies of scale in areas like student transportation and food services.

Interestingly, though, the geographic-based complex area may actually be the key unit of change at scale. Within the state Strategic Plan, each complex area can rally schools to pursue a specific area of focus tied to industry or community need.

Achieving clarity is doable. Working together, principals and the state office have already helped streamline the school academic plan and rework the principal evaluation system.

Let us have an informed conversation about where our public school system heads next.


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