Honolulu Advertiser Second Opinion column by Cliff Slater

March 5, 2001






(1) Schools chief told: We talk, you listen. Honolulu Advertiser. January 31, 2001. p. 1.

(2) This was the Superintendent’s response to Ms. Marion Higa’s critique of the DOE’s financial management as reported in the Honolulu Advertiser.

(3) 1960-61 Hawaii Dept. of Education Annual Report. Available at Legislative Reference Bureau in Capitol basement. REF # LB2809 H38 H3

"By 1898 when Hawai'i was annexed to the United States, Hawai'i's system was by the United States Congressional Subcommittee on Education as equal to mainland systems of education." Bean, Thomas W. and Jan Zulich. Education in Hawai'i: Balancing Equity and Progress. in Politics: Public Policy in Hawaii. 1992.

(4) Data sources: Students scores, Education Week's Quality Counts 2001. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), “is the only nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know.” Until recently Dr.Mitsugi Nakashima, Hawaii State Board of Education, was a member of the Governing Board of NAEP.

State NAEP scores are also available at the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics site. Digestion of Education Statistics 2000, Chapter 2, Table 114. Note that the latest reading scores have Hawaii as the worst of all 36 states surveyed.

(5) Education Digest 2000. U.S. Dept of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Table 169. Current expenditure per pupil in constant dollars.

It is also no excuse to invoke Hawaii’s higher cost of living since Hawaii salaries are on a par with Mainland levels. It is the ‘price of paradise’ that people pay to live in Hawaii. See Government in Hawaii 1997. Tax Foundation of Hawaii. Table 41: Average monthly earnings of public employees. p. 50.

(6) “Although no two organizations are identical, similar schools generally should not differ significantly in their costs.” The Auditor, State of Hawaii. Fiscal Accountability Audit of the Department of Education: Analysis of Selected School Expenditures. A Report to the Governor and the Legislature of the State of Hawaii. Report No. 00-14. September 2000. p. 16.

In addition, the report says, “Nanakuli’s special education per pupil cost was significantly lower than the statewide average (as much as $1,550 per pupil) while reportedly complying with the mandate. On the other hand, Konawaena complex spent $700 more per pupil than the statewide average in FY1998-99 but has not yet met the requirements of the consent decree.” P. 18.

(7) Ms. Marion Higa, the State Auditor, discusses the advantages of using such off the shelf software packages as Insight™ to analyze the DOE’s operations in this latest report. The Auditor, State of Hawaii. Fiscal Accountability Audit of the Department of Education: Analysis of Selected School Expenditures. A Report to the Governor and the Legislature of the State of Hawaii. Report No. 00-14. September 2000. p. 16.


DOE problem is management

The Dept. of Education’s (DOE) Superintendent was recently called into a meeting by his administrators and principals and was not allowed to speak—just to listen. Then his management staff spent nearly all day, “in an attempt to get [the Superintendent] to focus on problems they deal with daily.”(1)

At the risk of having the Superintendent accuse me of being, “seduced into simplistic answers to these very deep questions,”(2) I would say we have a management problem.

It is not a new one. In the early 1970s my wife and her fellow teachers helped unionize their school. They believed that a union would protect them from such DOE idiocies as team teaching, ITA alphabet, three-on-two and other management imposed fads of the moment.

However, once organized, the union promptly jumped into bed with the DOE and teachers have been sleeping out in the cold ever since.

There is solid evidence that the DOE has mismanaged our schools for the last 30 years. In 1960 our state’s schools were considered average for the nation as a whole.(3) By 1998 our Hawaii's public school students were performing so poorly that combining Hawaii's NAEP scores for reading and math put us ahead of just three states— Mississipi, New Mexico and Louisiana.(4). This has happened despite Hawaii’s spending being on a par with that of other states.(5)

That the DOE currently misallocates resources was shown in the recent State Auditor’s report. Hawaii’s ten highest cost schools spend twice as much as that of the ten lowest-cost schools. (6) In pointing this out, the Auditor says, “similar schools generally should not differ significantly in their costs.”

Yet the DOE persistently resists installing the Insight™ software that will analyze the financial data.(7) The Superintendent then says he will provide financial analysis but only for “external audiences”—assumedly management will not use it. He shows that he does not understand that financial analysis is the most important tool of management. You cannot adequately manage what you cannot measure.

This 30-year mismanagement record indicates that there is something wrong with the way we pick Superintendents for the DOE—a $1.3 billion-dollar enterprise with 24,000 employees, 240 locations and 190,000 customers. It has more employees than Hawaii’s eight largest companies put together.

In the past we have selected Superintendents from among our local education administrators. This last time, we went outside Hawaii, perhaps in the unconscious realization that people who have learned about management in badly managed organizations can hardly be expected to manage well themselves.

We typically pick them because they have superior credentials, they are articulate and they have political skill which, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “is the ability to foretell the result that increased spending will have on Hawaii public education tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."

We have never picked a superintendent on the basis of their superior management skills. So it no accident that today we have a highly articulate, bright well-meaning Superintendent of Education with a superb background in education theory but no management experience whatsoever.

Businesses looking for a CEO will focus first on managerial ability. You cannot get a degree in it. It is learned on the job—usually through failure since we cannot learn much from our successes. Only failure will develop the requisite modicum of doubt and paranoia essential to good management. To hire a manager who cannot recount their management failures, let alone has no experience, is suicidal.

A PhD is great for technicians, teachers and theorists. It can be disastrous for a CEO simply because they tend to believe they know everything about the subject. They do not realize how far they are from the trenches and so can lose touch with the only person that really matters: the lone teacher standing in front of her students.

That is the CEO’s job: To see that he has sufficient well qualified, well-paid, well supplied teachers together with disciplined students in a satisfactory work environment. This includes superior principals who, while demanding, will fight for their teachers. A real CEO will sacrifice every other expense to see that this happens. It must result in teachers feeling that management cares.

Such a CEO will, of course, be insufficiently pliant as far as the power community is concerned. So until our elected officials and the public worker union leadership are willing to stop sacrificing our children’s future to their exercise of power, Hawaii public education will go nowhere.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater