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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 27, 2010

Common vision key to winning Race to the Top

By Bill Reeves and Debbie Berger

An editorial in the May 21 New York Times once again showcases for all the world to see the state of public education in Hawai'i.

The piece, titled "Hawaii's Race to the Bottom," describes what parents and children here know all too well: that furlough Fridays "showed Hawai'i's political and education establishment at its worst."

The furloughs did represent the very worst in short-sighted thinking. The fact that our Board of Education didn't resign en masse in protest rather than actually sign on to something so clearly damaging to the children they have sworn to champion is indeed baffling.

But furlough Fridays are not the end of the story, as the Times implies, and Hawai'i is anything but "racing to the bottom."

Deep within the Department of Education, changes may offer true reform. Spurred by the Obama administration's educational challenge, the Race to the Top, interim Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi and her deputies are incorporating key elements of Hawai'i's application into the DOE's next five-year strategic plan.

Nowhere is the need for change more greatly appreciated than among our teachers and principals. It is clear that most realize that reforms are essential to improving student outcomes as well as their working environment.

The DOE has asked for and received tremendous concessions from labor that would have been virtually unthinkable a year ago and has itself been forced to dramatically reprioritize classroom over administrative spending.

Clearly there are more hard choices ahead but discomfort and reform go hand in hand. It is inevitable at the beginning of any new paradigm and what is required here is precisely that: a new paradigm based upon faith in a common vision.

To succeed, Hawai'i will need supportive and completely aligned goals that rely on data as well as common sense to prioritize student outcomes and encourage risk taking and innovation at the classroom level.

Given recent history, this degree of cultural change will require a new era of inclusion and collaboration from all sides and almost certainly the "gravitas" of the governor, as well. Hawai'i's next strategic plan, based in large part upon the Race to the Top, ought to serve as a strong foundation.

So what about the Race? How can we possibly afford the changes necessary if Hawai'i fails to win the prize?

The good news is that the Race has shown all relevant stakeholders what needs to be done, and money is actually the "easiest" part of the equation. Money can accelerate the process but lack of money need not alter its course. Ultimately, cultural change is not about money; it is about unwavering commitment.

In Round 1 of the Race to the Top competition, Hawai'i placed 22nd out of 41 entries not far behind states like New York that have received much greater attention for their reform efforts but certainly far from the "bottom."

Hawai'i has an extraordinary opportunity to "leapfrog" ahead and this is fully independent of whether or not we "win" the Race. Either way, if we stay the course we surely cannot lose.