Time to replace top DOE leaders and give more power to schools

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Graphic by Emily Metcalf
Graphic by Emily Metcalf

By Eileen Clarke, Gary Griffiths and Betty Mow – The Star-Advertiser recently alerted the public to discontent among public school principals, via coverage of a critical survey that found 88 percent of 160 principals saying central administration is not providing sufficient support to the schools, and 65 percent fearing retaliation for disagreeing with or questioning systemwide initiatives (“Principals feel they’re hamstrung, survey finds,” May 15).

A follow-up commentary by four former principals called the current system “dysfunctional” and pressed for school empowerment (“Public school leaders must be empowered to achieve success,” Island Voices, May 20); and an editorial called on state Department of Education leadership, school board members and the governor to heed the calls (“Address principals’ concerns,” Our View, May 21).


The recent survey of principals was not intended as a referendum to call for a change in leadership. But when you read the comments carefully, it is clear that the principals have lost faith in the system’s state-wide leadership.

Now, we are calling for a change in DOE leadership because the system has failed to listen to its professionals, failed to be transparent and failed to focus on the actual needs of the children.

More fundamentally, we are calling for change because it is in the best interests of the students.

Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi’s contract expires on June 30. We propose that her contract not be renewed and that the Board of Education begin the search for a successor who will turn the governance system right-side up.

A school system that does not embrace what principals and teachers say, and is run on fear of top-down retribution, is sick and in obvious need of major change.

The public should be asking, “Exactly what needs to be changed, and who is best situated to make those changes?”

We believe the answer is school empowerment, which starts with decentralization of the system management.

School empowerment can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but the bottom line is that central administrators relinquish power and control over resources and serve the schools, rather than the other way around.

Empowered schools get a much larger portion of each education dollar for students. And there is much greater transparency. The current system is opaque at best.

With school empowerment, 90 cents of every dollar must be spent at the school level, and parents wanting to know how it affects their child’s school have easy access to that information online.

The BOE and a streamlined central administration would continue to set systemwide policies and provide oversight to empow- ered schools, but each school community would have a reasonable degree of freedom to innovate.

Central administration’s primary responsibility would be to support the principals and teachers who are responsible for learning in the schools.

The nature of that support would be determined by the professionals at each school and be based on the specific needs of those students.

Turning the system right-side up — making central administration work for the schools rather than the other way around — would not require new laws. But it will take a superintendent who wants it to happen, who is determined to make it happen. Under current leadership there has been no movement toward school empowerment; rather, it’s moving in the opposite direction.

Press releases from the DOE have routinely portrayed happy principals, happy teachers, happy students and improving test scores. That cannot be squared with the results of the recent principals’ survey.

The DOE has used excellence at Waipahu High to “prove” the value of the Race to the Top initiative, despite the fact that Waipahu had not received any “Race” funds nor implemented any “Race” programs. The DOE also has touted a bump in test scores without making clear that students now take tests up to three times rather than once.

Disingenuous leadership has no place in an education system. Transparency and integrity are essential, as is a culture of high expectations and innovation.

No one likes to see others lose their jobs, but the current situation is untenable. The superintendent and her senior deputy have had their run; it is time for a change.