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District Profile

Trouble in Paradise

Hawaii’s district takes back restructuring effort from private ed firms.

Like other districts with schools that are not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) goals for five consecutive years, Hawaii is restructuring its low performing schools as required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Unlike most other districts, however, Hawaii, a single statewide district, has been doing it for five years with the support of three independent education consulting firms working directly with administrators and teachers in the failing schools.

The Hawaii State Department of Education had hired the private firms—EdisonLearning, America’s Choice and the Educational Testing Service (ETS)—to help the schools develop in-school leadership teams, interpret student performance data and apply it in teaching strategies, and “make sure our teachers are highly qualified and highly effective,” says Daniel S. Hamada, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and student support, who oversees the restructuring. Last year, the district paid the firms a total of $14.9 million.

Now, with 90 of the 287 schools in Hawaii, or 31 percent, currently undergoing restructuring and amid concerns about poor results and high costs of the effort so far, the district is preparing to change its approach and drop the three private firms after the 2010-2011 academic year. The education department will handle restructuring on its own after that, using its own “capacity” and best practices learned from the experience with the outside providers, says Hamada.

Meanwhile, the district's superintendent, Pat Hamamoto, whose contract was scheduled to expire on Oct. 31, 2011, abruptly resigned on Dec. 31, 2009.

As the department reported last July in an item headlined “Adequate Yearly Progress: An Uphill Battle” in a newsletter, The Superintendent’s InfoExchange, a record number of schools failed to meet AYP goals in 2008-2009. Only 34 percent of schools (97 schools) met all of their AYP targets, down from 42 percent (119) the year before. Eighty-seven schools missed making AYP by only one or two of the 37 target areas that NCLB defines.

Even before the department’s report, some Hawaii Board of Education members were questioning the use of outside firms to help the schools. “I have been hesitant about this from the beginning because they are so expensive. We have had to go into furloughs because we just don’t have the money. If there is something wrong with the schools we should be able to handle it ourselves,” says Karen Knudsen, the board’s vice chairperson, adding that the latest AYP results also discouraged some board members from continuing to fund the outside firms.

“Unique” Approach

Maui Waena Intermediate School is curently under restructuring with EdisonLearning.

The three outside firms have extensive experience working independently in other districts and previously in Hawaii, but the state’s approach in engaging multiple firms to provide comprehensive restructuring support is “unique,” says Tom Ewing, director of government and external relations at ETS. Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI ), says he also knows of no other districts “doing it the same way.” With Juliet P. Squire, then program manager in education policy studies at AEI , Hess co-authored a working paper published last August titled “Diverse Providers in Action: School Restructuring in Hawaii.”

Hamada, who has held his job for three years, says the department chose its approach and selected the three outside providers it is using, over seven other applicants that also responded to a request for proposals in 2004, “based on the level of needs of the schools.”

Explaining why achieving AYP goals remains an “uphill battle,” Hamada cites “complicating” factors. “We’re still struggling with our special education population and our English language learners,” he says. He adds that Hawaii’s mid-Pacific location makes it a “melting pot” for families that come from the Polynesian islands as well as the Southeast Asia rim and put their children into the school system “in different places; they don’t all start in kindergarten at age five and move through from there. We have to take the children where they are and work with them.”

Cultural Challenges

The three organizations maintain they are making progress, but acknowledge they face challenges, often related to Hawaii’s culture. Hawaiian schools are grouped into “complexes,” consisting of a high school and the middle and elementary schools that feed it. For administrative and support services, two to four complexes may be grouped to form a “complex area,” like a mini-district. Each complex area has its own superintendent.

“Hawaii has a lot of issues,” says Vera Vignes, director of America’s Choice’s west region, “including leadership and organization within the schools.” Daily school scheduling, particularly carving out more time to teach students lagging behind in math and/or reading, and teacher quality, are also problems. “We found a lack of expectation for the children,” she adds.

America’s Choice is working in “the lowest performing schools, with the poorest children, who sometimes are without homes and live on the beach, and have language and other kinds of needs,” Vignes says. “Because of Hawaii’s tourist industry, the expectation for many of these kids is that they don’t need to go to college or even finish school. They’ll just go to work in hotels or the service industry. We’re trying to help change expectations on the part of teachers and even the community. These kids can learn and do well. They just need more time,” she declares.

Another challenge is getting along with other administrators and teachers. “It’s all about building relationships with school staff. It takes a while to understand the situations in the communities and be accepted as an outsider,” says Shirley A. Olson, senior accountability associate and manager of Hawaii accounts for ETS. As Hess and Squire reported in their paper, John Kreick, EdisonLearning’s former regional general manager in Hawaii and no longer with the company, once said, “You don’t make waves. This is not a culture where you call people out publicly,” suggesting that getting school personnel to change how they do things can be a sensitive issue.

Babette Moreno, EdisonLearning’s regional general manager for the Pacific region, agrees that building relationships is important. “You can’t just come in and tell a teacher ‘you’re doing something wrong’ and get very far with them,” Moreno says. “Our job is to build a relationship with a school so that we can have honest conversations about what needs to happen. We don’t pretend to know everything that needs to happen, but we can provide a lot of insight based on our experiences working with other schools.” Sometimes, Moreno adds, “we go into a school where people have kind of accepted what their test scores are, with a ‘this is how it is’ attitude. Then the challenge is to get them to see what is going well at their school, not just what isn’t.”

In the Schools

EdisonLearning has 24 full-time employees who live in Hawaii and are working with 38 schools, Moreno says. They first establish a leadership team in a school. In middle and high schools, it includes the principal, assistant principal, department heads, curriculum coordinator, and “anyone else who has to do with academics,” Moreno says. In elementary schools, the principal, assistant principal and grade level chairs usually make up the team. School teams meet weekly with a staff member who helps them “plan their work plan,” Moreno says.

EdisonLearning also reviews data with them monthly from a benchmark system the firm uses to measure student progress. Every month, students take a formative assessment that is consistent with the state’s standards, answering between 20-25 questions. “The most important part of that is sitting down with the teachers after the assessment and going through the student data,” Moreno explains. “In some cases, we are able to help them see that something they taught the kids didn’t catch on, so they might need to re-teach it. In other cases, we can help them identify strands of learning where their kids are really strong, so the teachers might not have to dig as deeply into the subject.”

Teachers can use the data to “see every one of their kids; which questions they got correct and which they got wrong. They can see what individual kids need and what they need to improve on for the whole class if none of their kids got something,” Moreno says.

The other firms take similar approaches. When ETS starts in a school, it conducts a “significant audit,” including a review of student data from the past three years, “then we help them determine what their needs are,” says Olson. They then hire consultants, including former district superintendents and specialists in math and language arts, who come in from the mainland to help administrators and teachers address those needs. For its quarterly formative assessments, ETS draws from more than 40,000 items it has written for or aligned to Hawaii standards.

With three staff members in Hawaii, America’s Choice leaders also bring in content specialists from the mainland to work in the schools. Providing professional development for teachers in reading, writing, math and science is a key part of what they do. “A lot of our work is on changing teacher strategies and utilizing student data to adjust their instruction,” says Vignes.

On Its Own

When it discontinues using the outside firms, the Department of Education will use lessons it has learned from them to continue what they are doing, Hamada says. “We knew we needed to build capacity because we couldn’t afford to pay out this kind of money. Having these providers helped us learn, so we should be able to take over this role,” he declares.

The companies’ Hawaii managers agree. “We hope that with the strategies and practices that we facilitate and train the teachers how to use to improve their instruction, they will continue to grow on their own,” says Olson. Moreno adds that while boosting academic gains is among EdisonLearning’s goals, building capacity for the schools to continue on their own is another. “We don’t have any intention of being there forever,” she says.

Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.