Can principals save Hawai’i schools?

Recommended reading in today’s Star-Advertiser is Christine Donnelly’s piece on the role of principals in reforming public education, “Principals take lead setting agenda.”

I thought principals were notably absent from the school reform debate of 2003-2004; this time they are stepping up and speaking out.

Admittedly, one of their motivations has been to fight off proposals in the Legislature to cut their work year — and their pay — from 12 months to 10 months, but virtually every model for improving public education gives principals more authority for running their schools and more accountability for results.

One passage of the Donnelly article especially stood out to me:

“Certainly the budget proposal was a galvanizing factor, but even before that there was a sense that the principals’ perspective was missing from a lot of really important discussions going on about education reform,” said Moanalua High School principal Darrel Galera, the MetLife/National Association of Secondary School Principals Hawaii High School Principal of the Year. “I’ll just say it straight out: We already have the means in Hawaii to improve our school system, and that’s by tapping into the expertise of the many, many excellent principals whose schools are thriving even in this challenging environment.”

A lot of good things are going on in our schools despite all the problems, and we need to do a better job of getting initiatives that are working in one school — including the charters — into other schools.

A couple of telling results from a survey of Hawai’i principals:

  • On the question of what’s needed most to improve schools, more funding finished only third behind leadership and communications.
  • The principals expressed only lukewarm support for performance contracts that were included in the 2004 reforms, but never implemented.

If the principals want more authority, they’re going to have to put their money where their mouths are on accountability.

Four principals will be on PBS’ “Insights on Hawaii” at 7:30 p.m. tonight to discuss the surveys.

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13 Comments on “Can principals save Hawai’i schools?”

  1. shaftalley Says:

    can the hawaii state gov’t. save the hawaii public schools? the hawaii state constitution provides for the establishment of schools by the state ,etc. but the school system is struggling.and at UH,gov’t. funding in the last 20 yrs.has led to more college students,higher tuition and too much student debt. public schools are very costly especially high labor costs.

  2. charles Says:

    Unless principals have the authority to remove teachers, it will be difficult for them to reform their schools.

  3. David Shapiro Says:

    Charles, I agree. It looks like they also need the right to keep good teachers from getting bumped by more senior teachers who may not fit their needs.

  4. WooWoo Says:

    All the more reason why they should have chosen a principal to be superintendent. I hear wonderful things about Sosa at Kaiser.

  5. Della Au Belatti Says:

    Thanks Dave for highlighting this important article in today’s Star-Advertiser. Having worked as a teacher under the leadership of a visionary principal, I truly believe principals are critical to the success of schools and student achievement.

    If teachers have challenges in the classroom, principals have an even tougher job as they are called upon to be “educational visionaries, instructional and curriculum leaders, assessment experts, disciplinarians, community builders, public relations experts, budget analysts, facility managers, special programs administrators, and expert overseers of legal, contractual, and policy mandates and initiatives.” (See School Leadership Study at

    For me, the most interesting responses from the Principals Planning Group survey highlighted in the Star-Advertiser article were those things that would empower them as school principals. Three of the five items (flexibility and empowerment for hiring of teachers; authority to run a school; and empowerment with unions and contracts) all point to the interesting dilemma of how to empower principals within a setting where much is predetermined by union contracts that are not within the principals’ authority.

    For example, will giving principals more authority in hiring and deploying teachers run directly into collectively bargained rules that are impossible to get around? Very likely. Can principals, the DOE, the BOE, and teachers navigate through these tricky waters? I sure hope so…for the sake of student achievement.

    As educational improvement is and will always be a work in progress, I’ll be looking forward to more of the solutions put forward and advanced by the Principals Planning Group.

  6. charles Says:

    @Woowoo, leadership qualities are not unique to principals when selecting a superintendent. You only have to look at superintendents like Klein in New York, Rhee in D.C. and Stanford in Seattle to realize that being a former principal isn’t necessary to achieve success. Indeed, Klein (anti-trust attorney) and Stanford (retired Army general) were not even teachers when appointed superintendent/chancellor.

    Besides, the BOE has yet to select a superintendent to replace Hamamoto.

    @David, it doesn’t end there. The superintendent needs the authority to remove low-performing principals.

  7. David Shapiro Says:

    Della, the principals at some of the charter schools were able to do exactly what you suggest in navigating around furlough Fridays.

  8. WooWoo Says:

    I hear you, Charles. I just think that our current situation calls for a principal more than a high-power reformer. The sad reason is that there just isn’t the urgency. As bad as our schools are, they aren’t as bad as DC’s were when they get Rhee. An outside reformer will likely get slowly but surely defeated by the entrenched powers. I’m not as familiar with the other school systems, but I know that in DC the system got so bad that anybody from within the system had no credibility when going up against Rhee. The parents were no longer taking excuses from the school system; unfortunately, a lot of parents here still are.

    The problem here is that we have a bureaucratic swamp. What is needed is somebody that has good administrative chops, a healthy amount of respect and support earned from having worked in Hawaii’s system, and the bureaucratic street smarts to know which DOE battles to fight now and which ones to fight later.

    As I mentioned earlier, Sosa at Kaiser seems to be doing a great job, and has a varied background that includes district administration and work on the mainland. If he’s not the next superintendent (and I’ve never heard his name mentioned, so this is just in my head), then whomever is chosen needs to utilize Sosa as either an informal or formal advisor.

  9. zzzzzz Says:

    I found it interesting that there was no mention of parent involvement as something most needed to improve schools.

  10. Michael Says:

    Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians. There was a time of total rule by Principals and there was a PTA. Principals came dime a dozen. If they failed they were Fired. Parent, Teachers Association or PTA, was an involvement of both. Now days Principals want the title but not the consequences.

  11. Della Au Belatti Says:

    Dave – I agree with your comments about charter school principals. How they function and are able to get maneuver through bureaucracy with collaboration among their teachers, boards, and parents should be looked at more closely as policymakers consider how to decentralize schools and move more decision-making power down to school level.

  12. Michael Says:

    If there was a Principle to running Schools, it seems forgotten. The students come first.

  13. David Shapiro Says:

    Della, I think part of it is we need to learn to see opportunities rather than threats.

    One way to get the ball rolling would be for the Legislature to do a soup to nuts review of Act 51 — what was implemented, what wasn’t; what worked, what didn’t. Then revise as indicated. It’s unusual not to do a systematic follow-up on such a major law.

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