The Maui News' reports on the Fordham Institute's rating of Hawaii's standards for science education raise questions over educational quality, not the least of which is: What is the purpose of state standards on education?
Kalama Intermediate School science teacher Maggie Prevenas, noted for her enthusiasm and ability to motivate students, illustrated the issue when she observed that California was given an "A" in the Fordham report but California students scored below Hawaii students in a National Assessment of Educational Progress report.
The issue is not standards but implementation, how well teachers are teaching. As Prevenas says, "Excellent science standards don't necessarily equate to excellent science learning."
The observation applies to all educational standards. In assessing educational outcomes, what matters is how students perform after leaving school, not how well they test in school.
Business owners and managers who hire young adults with high school degrees can assess whether the employee is adequately prepared. At University of Hawaii Maui College and similar open-enrollment colleges around the country, large numbers of students are not prepared for college, requiring remedial classes that add costs for students and institutions.
The ACT exam last year found that half of the students tested were not up to speed in math and reading for college-level work ("Few students ready for college coursework, ACT says," Aug. 17, 2011, chronicle.com). The implication is that secondary school standards either are inadequate or simply not being met.
Educational standards are goals, but applying a goal for 180,000 students in Hawaii public schools is hardly realistic if expectations are that students with varying abilities all can achieve the same result.
Even the Fordham Institute appears conflicted on how standards are implemented. The institute supports educational reform and No Child Left Behind. But a December report found that initial gains from NCLB mandates did not lead to continuing advances ("The Accountability Plateau," Dec. 16, 2011, Fordham Institute/Daily Flypaper).
While NCLB initially improved student performance, the report says, "The data also suggest, however, that the accountability movement has likely reached a point of diminishing (or perhaps even no) returns."
School governance is seen as a problem when teachers in the classroom have to answer to federal and state government agencies, school boards and district administrators.
Fordham policy fellow Peter Meyer's resolution requires the "government getting out of the way. We need less system, not more" ("Scaling up by scaling down, part 2," Feb. 6, 2012, Fordham Institute Board's Eye View).
But there can be effective standards. Fordham advocates the Common Core program that Hawaii's Board of Education has adopted. Its broad mandate is that students be prepared for a post-high school career or college. That requires collaboration with college instructors and employers to assure that the curriculum prepares students for the next step - whether it's college or a job.
Collaboration can be difficult. Through the centuries, communities in the United States paid for schools providing what the communities determined were educational needs. Communities determined standards, not the state or federal governments. School districts today deal with standards imposed from above that add costs to communities, while communities may have alternative views about educational needs.
There are efforts to bridge the gap, such as the Maui Educational Consortium (maui.hawaii.edu/mauiedconsort/LC_About_Us.html), which has Maui District teachers and UH-Maui College instructors devising educational goals for students expecting to move on to college.
But there is no goal-setting to match for students who will not go to college, and the Educational Consortium is voluntary rather than schoolwide. Standards and goals are noble ideals. Implementation and achieving goals are what count and that results from the efforts of teachers and students - the ones doing the work.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.