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Volume III, Number 6, June, 2005

Reading, 'Rithmetic, and Raccoons:
The Reality of NCLB in Hawai'i

By Margaret Maaka

This article first appeared in the May 8 issue of the Honolulu Advertiser and is republished here with permission.



I begin with a story. As you know, in the Nanakuli Hawai'i community, most of the children are an, come from low-income families, and speak pidgin as their first language. (For a community profile provided by the University of Hawai'i's Center on the Family, click here and scroll down for the Nanakuli PDF file.

They are also bright, eager to learn, sometimes kolohe, and have strong senses of community - of belonging to that Hawaiian place. A couple of years ago, I was observing one of my pre-service teachers in a first-grade classroom at Nanaikapono School.

For this particular lesson on subtraction, this new teacher opted to examine a prepackaged first-grade mathematics program developed on the Mainland. This involved a textbook that required children to work through sets of carefully prescribed activities before moving on to independent practice pages.

Each page carried a variety of colorful illustrations designed to relate to children's experiences. People snow-skiing and sledding, as well as reindeer, snowmen and raccoons, drilled mathematical operations. On this day, my pre-service teacher began the lesson by writing the word subtraction on the chalkboard and asking the children to say it.

Next, she introduced the first example: "There are four raccoons. Three run away. How many raccoons are left?" A couple of children volunteered answers. She continued with another example from the text. And then another.

On completing the sample problems, she instructed the children to work independently on the practice pages. With this came the assumption that they had grasped a rudimentary understanding of the concept of subtraction. As I continued to observe, I noticed several children struggling with the assignment.

Raccoon? Wass dat?
Finally, one child approached my pre-service teacher. As he thrust his unmarked practice pages at her, he complained, "Subtraction? I dunno dis! Raccoon? Wass dat?"
This beach crab is a bit more familiar than racoons.

For many Hawaiian children, school learning consists of a series of "raccoonlike" experiences. As a group, Hawaiian children show the patterns of educational disadvantages familiar to educators, especially those working in low-income settings. Their scores on standardized tests of mathematics and reading achievement are in the lowest quartile, and their rates of absenteeism, retention in grade, and referral to special education are far above average.

This situation has dire consequences - Hawaiian children cannot function successfully in their daily lives if they are not literate. We are familiar with this phenomenon at Nanaikapono School. Our team is fully aware that we must strengthen our efforts to ensure that by the time our children leave our school they are able to draw skills and knowledge to understand, rethink and reshape their worlds.

This belief is in keeping with the intent of the No Child Left Behind Act - to ensure that all children have fair, equal and significant opportunities to obtain high-quality educations.

But what do high-quality educational opportunities entail?

At Nanaikapono School, we are working on a schoolwide curriculum reform model designed to meet the unique needs of children in the Nanakuli community. It draws on a broad base of research in language arts education, mathematics education, technology education, teacher professional development, curriculum reform, indigenous education and school restructuring.

We are also drawing on a local knowledge of the Hawaiian culture, particularly through the Nanaikapono School and Community Museum. Unique to the state, this museum provides cultural experiences for the school, as well as other schools and communities.

Our partnership includes the school community, the Nanakuli community, the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and the Kamehameha Schools.

Our educational mission is to raise our children's levels of performance by providing them with many opportunities to learn about the world around them.

This includes learning traditional skills and knowledge and respect for the Hawaiian culture and language, as well as learning Western skills and knowledge.

In our work, we are heeding the warnings of prominent researchers in education by moving from a "one-size-fits-all" approach to schooling to an approach that sees our school differentiating itself by adopting a distinctive educational ethos and approach, based on sound educational grounds and an analysis of our community and student needs.

For example, we believe our children must be given increased and meaningful access to technology and the information that this makes available. We are not interested in shortchanging our children by narrowing our curriculum to focus primarily on monotonous, disconnected and stressful test taking.

When the visual arts, physical education, music, Hawaiian studies and the like are eliminated from our children's learning experiences, we view this as nothing more than federal- and state-mandated abuse and discrimination thinly disguised as education.

In recent years, our children have made significant progress in their schooling. Informal and formal assessments of student achievement support this claim. Take, for example, the Benchmark Tracker assessment data gathered in January and used by the administration of the Hawai'i DOE to label Nanaikapono a "lagging school" in need of restructuring:

The main group (All Students) and the subgroups (Asian/Pacific Island and Disadvantaged Students) met the required benchmarks. The Disabled subgroup fell short of the benchmark by what constitutes about one child.

It was not, however, publicized that of the 10 percent of this population that was required to meet or exceed proficiency, 8 percent made proficiency in mathematics and 7 percent made proficiency in reading.

Remember, these are children with special needs performing on an assessment instrument designed for children in the "regular education" band. We feel that this is an enormous gain for a school that has a "disabled" population that is far greater and far more severe in its special needs than most schools in Hawai'i.

We consider ourselves a school that is making good progress in all areas of education, including the education of our children with special needs.

So, what does restructuring mean for schools like Nanaikapono? After many years of ignoring requests for more funding for extra teaching positions and more professional development opportunities for teachers, the administration of the Hawai'i DOE has responded by directing each "lagging school" to purchase the services of an "educational service provider."

Miraculously, this provider will ensure that in nine years' time, 100 percent of our children in grades 3 through 8 will be proficient in mathematics and reading (as required by the No Child Left Behind Act). The cost of this service could run about $400,000 a year per school!

I can only wonder if either the administration of the Hawai'i DOE or the educational service provider will be held accountable and publicly "named and shamed" when our school, along with most other schools in the state of Hawai'i, does not meet this unrealistic goal.

Sanity needs to return to public education in Hawai'i, and there are two ways to ensure this. The first is to support reforms to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The second is to place all educational decision-making in the hands of those who know the children of Hawai'i best - the schools and the communities they serve.

This article is based on testimony before the 2005 State Legislature.

Margaret Maaka is an associate professor in the department of curriculum studies at the UH-Manoa College of Education. She has had a 10-year partnership with Nanaikapono Elementary School in the Nanakuli community to encourage professional development of pre-service and in-service teachers and to develop a schoolwide curriculum reform model.

© 2005, Margaret Maaka, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.