Hawaii's Race Back to the Top

Friday, Hawaiian education officials can bid farewell to officials from the U.S. Department of Education. For now, anyways.

The four-day visit was part of an evaluation to see how the Aloha state has fared in implementing the changes it promised when it won a lucrative Race to the Top grant for $75 million. The state set high goals: Officials said they would eliminate achievement gaps by 2018 and begin measuring teacher effectiveness. Since then, however, the state has struggled to make the necessary changes, and the feds have taken note. At the end of 2011, the U.S. Department of Education labeled the state's grant "high risk," limiting its access to the grant money. It may be in jeopardy of losing the funding entirely. 

While the state legislature is considering bills to reduce teacher contract protections like tenure, the state's teachers have been reticent about making changes, and earlier this year, voted down a proposed contract that would have included more performance-based compensation. A report from the Center for American Progress was particularly critical of Hawaii's progress (as well as Florida's.) The Honolulu Civil Beat offers a comprehensive look at where the state stands in terms of implementation.

The state's superintendent has defended the state against the CAP report, arguing that "over the past nine months, Hawaii has demonstrated increased trajectory and considerable progress in all Race to the Top areas." It was the same defense she gave the next day when the federal officials arrived. She was likely referring to the agreement between the state teachers' union and the district on those schools that would be targeted for reform, which include longer learning time and more days of professional development for teachers. (I should note here that Hawaii only has one school district for the entire state.) Still the state has no formal agreement with its teachers union yet.

The Race to the Top grants were the first of their kind—high profile, competitive grants in which the federal government favored those districts implementing policies the feds liked. The Obama administration has been clear that it intends to hold state accountable to the promises in their applications. However, as EdWeek notes, things are politically complicated, since Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee—which has a good deal of say over funding for the Department of Education. Depending on the results of this trip, the department may have to decide between pleasing political allies and flexing some political muscle.



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