Graphic: Emily Metcalf
Graphic: Emily Metcalf

BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – When President George W. Bush teamed up with U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy in 2001 to get passed the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress members on both sides of the political spectrum talked about the wonders of the bi-partisan legislation and how it would improve test scores and academic accountability across the nation.

But the concept was not popular among many teachers and school administrators who claimed the law was poorly crafted and restrictive and forced them to focus on test scores rather than student learning and achievement.

Now President Barack Obama is giving public schools across the nation the chance to be “flexible” in their efforts to meet the nation’s education law requirements.

As of October 13, 2011, 41 States have submitted their intent to request “Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Flexibility” with the U.S. Department of Education.

Hawaii Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi explained the flexibility was offered “in exchange for rigorous and comprehensive State-developed plans designed to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, increase equity, and improve the quality of instruction.”

She said that Hawaii has applied for a waiver and in doing so “is taking another bold step forward to accelerate education reform, raise accountability, and ensure all students graduate college- and career-ready.”

“ESEA Flexibility will provide states with a rigorous alternative to the current No Child Left Behind one-size-fits-all approach and the responsibility to redefine academic success beyond Adequate Yearly Progress,” Matayoshi said.

But not everyone agrees that this option is good for Hawaii or the other 40 states that have applied.

Lindsey Burke, Senior Policy Analyst for The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, said states need genuine relief from the burdens of No Child Left Behind and should be allowed to opt-out entirely from the law, through Congressionally-approved proposals.

She believes that states should not accept the waiver bait from Washington, because any short-term relief they might receive will be “handcuffed” down the road.

“The NCLB waivers allow the U.S. Secretary of Education to dictate new policy onto states, without having gone through Congress. The waivers circumvent Congress, and represent a significant federal overreach,” Burke said. “Moreover, states that apply for a waiver will be required to adopt national education standards and tests, another significant federal overreach.”

In the upcoming months, Hawaii’s superintendent says the State Department of Education will be “engaging and soliciting input from diverse stakeholders and communities in the development of its request.”

But Thomas Stuart, an outspoken public school math teacher living on the island of Hawaii, believes Hawaii’s school district is taking a step in the wrong direction.

Stuart said this move by the DOE shows “desperation”: “The DOE is trying to dodge the tightening noose of ESEA and NCLB accountability while maintaining the pretense of compliance to keep those all important fed bucks flowing.”

Stuart said in Hawaii, the DOE has not managed its responsibilities properly, and in fact, never established a curriculum for school children.

“Had the Hawaii DOE done the responsible thing when ESEA 02/NCLB first took effect back in FY 02, they would have promulgated an academic curriculum for grades K and 1 the first year, added to it for grade 2 the second year and so on until by the deadline year of 2014 we might indeed have been able to say we can teach all kids the basics in reading and computation skills that they might be proficient,” Stuart said.

“Instead DOE backed by the teacher union fought this attempt to make teachers accountable for results tooth and nail. DOE established all sorts of highly advanced ‘standards’, which, absent a curriculum, were nothing but pie in the sky.”

Stuart said the Hawaii DOE has pushed ahead a “mock compliance effort” with little success.

“The first year as I recall, only 3 percent of the kids had to test out ‘proficient’ in math according to how DOE defined ‘proficient’ for a school to have made ‘adequate yearly progress’ with seemingly exponential increases in the adequate yearly progress every couple of years until by the year 2014, 100 per cent of the kids would test out ‘proficient.’ This scheme fell apart for all to see when more than two thirds of the schools were labeled as ‘failing’ for having not met adequate yearly progress.”

Stuart said that “desperate measures were called for” and the old contractor who provided and scored the annual tests was fired and a new contractor hired. He recounts that tests were “watered down” one year with the result that “miraculous sudden improvement was noted the following year.”

Many teachers interviewed by Hawaii Reporter complained that No Child Left Behind meant that schools were eliminating some valuable courses in art and music and other electives so that all instructors would teach math and English in all their classes. In addition, principals and teachers focused on teaching the students how to take the test, rather than focusing on real learning and the whole student.

“In an effort to keep the fed bucks flowing while tap dancing away from any real accountability — e.g. establishing academic curricula on which a real assessment test could be based — the situation has grown more and more absurd and kids have increasingly been denied a real education that could prepare them for private sector employment or advanced education,” Stuart said.

Hawaii is the only state in the nation with one centralized school district under state control. Many people believe that the solution to Hawaii’s poor student scores in math and reading is to decentralize the school districts and allow for more local control and accountability for where the money is being spent.

Currently the state spends more than $12,457 per student in the public schools, according to Kidscount.org.

The U.S. Census ranks Hawaii 11th highest on student spending in the nation when compared to other states, but that may not take into account spending on capital improvement projects for the schools and more than $500 million in DOE employee benefits paid by the state Department of Budget and Finance rather than the DOE.

That $12,457 – which is likely even higher with the other costs added in – is above what many private schools spend per student, yet the private schools for the most part have higher student achievement on math and reading scores than their peers in public school.

Hawaii’s top private schools such as Punahou and Iolani charge around $17,800 and $16,500 per student per year respectively, while Hawaii’s many religiously affiliated schools and smaller private schools charge as little as $4,000 a year and up.

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