Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

January 3, 2005

Education: Tough love and no excuses

Articles that have appeared this past week, when added to the latest data on Hawaii’s student performance, paint a devastating picture about our public education and the potential job opportunities for Hawaii’s children.

First, the Wall Street Journal reported on a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showing that the math scores for U.S. fifteen-year-olds rank the U.S. 24th among the 29 member nations.[1]

Second, the latest math scores for Hawaii’s fourteen-year-old children shows that we are better than only four states, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico and Arkansas[2], all very poor states in contrast with Hawaii which ranks 20th among the 50 states in personal incomes.[3]

To repeat: Hawaii children score in the bottom ten percent of our country while the U.S. itself ranks in the bottom 20 percent of countries. What an appalling fact.

It should not be surprising then to read in this newspaper of recent emergency issuance of 20,000 visas for scientists and technicians who had job offers from those U.S. companies who were able to certify that they were unable to find U.S. residents to fill the jobs. These visas were in addition to 65,000 issued earlier in the year.[4]

U.S. companies are desperate for college graduates with math and science skills wherever they can get them. And since the U.S., and particularly Hawaii, is no longer graduating them, they have to get them from overseas.

(We will hear the usual excuses that Hawaii has an overabundance of immigrant children whose English skills are poor. However, for 2003 we have data comparing the math scores for just Caucasian children in each state. Hawaii’s fourteen-year-old Caucasian children scored in the bottom third of all states.[5])

We know that to get ahead in the U.S. today, merely graduating from high school is not enough since high-paying blue collar manufacturing jobs no longer exist. The college degree is now beyond preferable — it is essential. What is now preferable is a graduate degree in a scientific or technical field. A sociology degree with a major in third world lesbian films does not cut it. And while an advanced degree in liberal arts may be of some help in a management job, those are getting fewer because middle managers are increasingly being reduced by information age efficiencies.

What is it going to take to get Hawaii’s children up to this needed higher level of education? They have to see themselves as successful in school from the very beginning and then stay successful all the way through. How do we do that?

We have to train principals to be like those profiled in the book, “No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools” (full text available online).[6] This study found that principals were the key factor for dramatically improving student outcomes in high-poverty schools.[7]

These principals, as the book explains, “either had the authority, or took it.” These are managers on a mission believing that “running a high-poverty school is one of the most important leadership positions in America.” They, or their teachers, go to their students’ homes extracting written commitments regarding parental responsibilities — and these principals do not take no for an answer.

One of the principals profiled is Nancy Ichinaga, whose Inglewood, California, elementary school has mostly Hispanic students. Part of her ‘no excuses’ program includes holding back kindergarten students whose reading is not up to par. She believes students have to go into first grade reading at grade level or it will trigger a continuing cycle of educational failure.

And she fights the bureaucracy: She fought the State of California to get exemptions for her phonics program and another exemption for English-only instruction. (For details of her school and its achievements, see the footnotes.[8])

Of course, none of this can happen without first giving principals control of their school’s expenditures so that they can properly manage the schools. One cannot manage anything without control of the money, which is to say, the resources. Without it all principals can do is, as the phrase has it, rearrange the deck chairs on the slowly sinking ship.

Principals who do not want that control should be returned to teaching since they obviously do not want the authority and, particularly, what comes with it — responsibility.

There are great examples of successful schools across the country. We just have to learn from them and emulate their success with tough love and no excuses.

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