- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii’s public school system isn’t planning to ask for more time to carry out ambitious reforms that won the state a $75 million federal grant.

The U.S. Department of Education held Hawaii up as an example of success that can be achieved as the department released third-year progress reports for the District of Columbia and the 11 states that won grants in the first two rounds of the “Race to the Top” program.

In a conference call with reporters nationwide, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Hawaii has made “huge progress” implementing reforms.

He noted that this time last year, Hawaii’s grant was on “high-risk” status for unsatisfactory progress and there was talk of withholding the money.

The department said Hawaii is the only grant winner that has yet to request more time to accomplish reform goals. Hawaii isn’t planning to ask for an extension, said state Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz.

“As Secretary Duncan noted, the department and our schools have made tremendous progress over the course of the grant,” she said. “We are on track to go above and beyond satisfying the requirements of the grant, on time.”

Tiffany Miller, associate director for school improvement at policy think-tank Center for American Progress, said Wednesday it’s a little surprising Hawaii hasn’t requested an extension. “If they don’t need it, then that’s great,” she said. “If they do, that’s fine, too. They shouldn’t view it as a negative.”

Duncan highlighted Hawaii for launching tougher diploma requirements two years ahead of schedule and for focusing on science, technology, engineering and math - fields known collectively as STEM.

Hawaii’s report notes challenges, including new education evaluations that some teachers have complained about.

Teacher evaluations were implemented this school year after a bitter contract dispute between the state and the Hawaii State Teachers Association over the issue. Starting in July, only teachers who receive a rating of “effective” or higher will be eligible to receive pay increases.

The evaluation system “is necessary and supported by teachers,” Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe said Wednesday. “There are still many challenges that need to be reviewed.” Okabe said a joint survey by the union and the state will help identify and address those challenges.

The report also says Hawaii fell short of its high school graduation rate target for the 2012-13 school year, but exceeded its college enrollment target by more than 10 percent for the same school year. Hawaii set a 90 percent graduation rate goal, but the state’s graduation rate of 81 percent exceeds the national average of 78 percent, Dela Cruz said. “This is a high expectation, however, Hawaii is determined to take the steps needed to eventually reach this goal,” she said.

Lofty goals like the one Hawaii set for its graduation rate is the point of Race to the Top, Miller said. “It’s really to push states to move the needle, to think of ways to reform education, to move outside their comfort zone,” she said.

When Hawaii won the grant in 2010, people doubted the department’s judgment and thought the state wouldn’t be successful, Duncan said.

In December 2011, the federal education department admonished Hawaii for unsatisfactory performance in delivering on the reforms. Then, about a week before the start of this school year, Hawaii was cleared from its “high-risk” status.

This isn’t the first time Duncan has showered Hawaii schools officials with praise for rebounding. In November, he lauded Hawaii’s results on a national math and reading report card for fourth- and eighth-graders, saying the results helped prove skeptics wrong.

The third-year report touts Hawaii’s 2012 National Assessment of Educational Progress results that indicate an 8 point increase in average scores in mathematics for grades four and eight, a 4 point increase in the average score for reading in grade four and a 5 point increase in the average score for eighth-grade reading, when compared with 2009 results.

“They’re getting high praise for good reason,” Miller said. “It’s because they’re making decisions that are best for them.”


Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at https://www.twitter.com/JenHapa .

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