Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Empowering Schools

Recently, a retired, respected principal sent out a survey to sitting principals in our Department.  Results were shared recently in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article titled, "Principals feel they're hamstrung, survey finds".  A follow-up op-ed piece as well as a "Name in the News" profile on retired principal John Sosa all pointed to the same message:  sitting principals are concerned with the present state of the Department, but they are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution.  In response to the question, "What should individual principals do?" Mr. Sosa replied, "I think they have to stand up and be counted.  The system can be changed, but it's going to take the principals coming forth, the active sitting principals."

It has been ten years since Act 51 was passed by the 2004 Legislature, and the expectation was that principals and school communities would be empowered to make decisions to address the unique needs of their school.  A weighted student formula, modeled after the one implemented in the Edmonton School district, allocated funds based on student need.  Principals and schools would be empowered, but they would also be accountable for student achievement.  In the aftermath of Act 51, school communities were tasked with making decisions about how to spend the money they were allocated to ensure student success.

Today, ten years after the Reinventing Education Act of 2004, whose purpose was to decentralize the DOE and give decision-making power to the schools - in essence, turning the Department upside-down - the balance has shifted power back to the top.Today, schools are even being told how to spend their weighted student formula funds.  We have had to create positions to implement the Department's priority strategies, and now, we are being mandated to purchase a specific program for English Language Arts and Mathematics.  A school with 300 students could pay upwards of $160,000 on these two programs with additional costs incurred each year for professional development, consummable workbooks, or renewal of licenses.. As an educator who believes that teachers should be empowered to use a multitude of resources to address the needs of their students, this has been a difficult mandate to swallow.

To make matters even more challenging, as a result of the negotiated contract to tie teacher performance to student learning, the Department hastily instituted an Educator Effectiveness System this year which is labor and time-intensive. The different components provides data to rate ALL teachers using the SAME evaluation tool.  Why are we evaluating beginning teachers using the same criteria and rubric as experienced, distinguished teachers?  Why aren't teachers setting their own goals for improvement?  Shouldn't we be encouraging teachers to be innovative and to grow professionally in an area they may be interested in or passionate about? Don't we want teachers to be life-long learners?  Just as standardized testing doesn't tell the true story of a student and how much he/she knows, EES ratings do not tell the true value of a teacher.

This school year has been confusing for educators at our school.  Teachers dutifully completed the required tasks, but we know that all the EES requirements boiled down to compliance. At the end of the day, we could say we completed everything and checked off every box in pde3 for every teacher, but all of these tasks did NOT necessarily lead to increased student achievement.

We made the decision not to purchase the mandated English Language Arts curriculum.  I have no doubt that the year would have been even more difficult for our teachers if we had forced a new program on them.

Instead, our teachers had the opportunity to try new ideas, and they sought opportunities to learn new instructional strategies, often through the use of new technologies.  Students had choices on what to read and write when teachers implemented The Daily Five.  The entire school was excited to share their creative Cardboard Challenge projects which integrated STEM concepts.  Classrooms participated in the Global Read Aloud, Google Hangouts, Mystery Classrooms, and virtual field trips with schools around the globe.. Students created websites, collaborated on Google presentations, learned to code during The Hour of Code, produced informative videos to share important messages, and created communities in Minecraft. They grew their own vegetables, marketed their own sunflower seeds, learned about our state's history and culture by tending their Hawaiian garden, integrated math concepts in art projects, and built their own simple machines.  All of these projects would not have been possible without innovative classroom teachers who had "permission" to try something new.

This is what education should be:  Empowering principals to empower teachers to empower students. Education is about leadership to innovate and to create. Our school will probably never lead the state in standardized test scores, but we believe our students will be better prepared for life if we empower our teachers and our students to be innovative and to take responsibility for their own learning.

Teaching and learning should be exciting, and schools need to be empowered to address the unique needs of their community rather than being mandated to implement one-size-fits-all curriculum.  That was the intent of Act 51.



  1. Thank you Jan for openly sharing your views regarding EES
    lack of credibility, your earnest belief in teaching from personal strengths, talents and dreams for student learning.

  2. Thank you Jan for putting in print how many of us feel. You are an inspiration to those who truly desire to educate as opposed to simply pushing out the 'factory model' student.

  3. You made some very interesting points about the educational process going back to top to bottom. I totally agree with the EES: elementary school teachers cannot be on the same rubric as middle and high school. The way EES is set up, I was told that Kindergarten teachers will be at a disadvantage from the beginning.......
    I have enjoyed reading your blogs this year.

  4. Thank you, all, for sharing your comments. Let's hope that next year is a more productive year and that our precious time can be spent on meaningful change.

  5. It's certainly been an interesting year, and I'm glad to read that you're just as frustrated with the new system as we are.

  6. Thank you Jan. On the other side of the coin are teachers that are not as experienced that would like the guidance of a structured curriculum. It takes time to develop the skills and techniques required to be an innovator. The structure allows the newer teacher to make adjustments as needed, without the stress of not knowing what needs to come next.

    1. I understand your concern, and that is why we are working on getting all the interdisciplinary units updated so new teachers will at least have a guide when they begin. Re. math, we will be purchasing the recommended program, but not next year. We hope the "bugs" will be worked out by others before we implement. Always remember, though, that we are using multiple resources when we teach. That is what good teaching and learning is about -- looking at data and determining what are the next steps for our students.

  7. Yes, I agree whole-heartily to the issues you have addressed so succinctly. Mahalo for your transparency and for sharing what many of us are feeling at this crucial time in the history of the Hawaii State Department of Education.

  8. I agree whole-heartedly with you that teachiing and learning should be exciting, and schools need to be empowered to address the unique needs of their community rather than being mandated to implement one-size-fits-all curriculum. EES definately needs to be reconsidered-revisited-revamped. The outrageous demands are time consuming and unnecessarily throwing away money. As you highlighted the many successes that Hale Kula students have enjoyed from innovative teaching and activities - that's the way to go. I appreciate the efforts you put forth as our Principal who strives to empower us (teachers) to empower students. Your leadership by example keeps me motivated to do better. Although, I wasn't able to keep up with ALL of your blogs, I know that they were all read worthy. Your blogs have been educational, beneficial, and inspirational. I appreciate every effort you put forth to keep Hale Kula Elementary School a thriving community for student learning. Thank you!

  9. I really appreciate your comments to my blog. We will continue to work together to empower our teachers and our students so that education is meaningful for everyone in our school community.