[ OUR OPINION ]
Debate on school boards
misses the target
SPLITTING the statewide Board of Education into smaller bodies could make school governance more accessible to the community and result in voters making more informed choices in the election of board members. Whether such restructuring would help student achievement, however, remains equivocal.
Experts say there is little evidence to support Governor Lingle's contention that smaller districts will improve student performance.
In promoting her plan to break up the school board as pivotal to improving public education, Governor Lingle has not yet connected the dots. This complex and consequential undertaking demands that the governor present accurately data that supports her assertions. More importantly, it behooves Lingle and her panel of advocates to give full consideration and weight to research even if it may conflict with her premise. If not, her ambitious and admirable effort to overhaul the education system will suffer and so will Hawaii's children.
Lingle, in testimony to the state Legislature, erred when she said, "Studies of 37 states plus the District of Columbia have all reached the same conclusion" that there is "a direct connection between smaller school districts and higher student achievement." When Star-Bulletin reporter Susan Essoyan asked the governor to identify the studies, Lingle said she was really referring to just one study of 37 states.
That study, published 10 years ago, was not conclusive. Instead, it said that "results suggest" states with larger average size schools or districts "achieve significantly less well," but that more research was needed because such key factors as socioeconomic status had not been part of the survey.
Meanwhile, education experts and other studies have found little evidence that district size influences student performance one way or the other. More significant elements of improvement are good curriculum, smaller schools, smaller class size, qualified teachers and parental involvement.
School board member Laura Thielen, an advocate for multiple school boards and a member of the governor's education reform committee, acknowledges that the panel has not found "a one-to-one effect" between small districts and student achievement. One study she cites has found that in impoverished areas, students did better if both districts and schools were small, but curiously, this did not hold true in affluent districts. In addition, the seven districts the governor proposes would still contain between 10,000 to 37,000 students, far more than the national average of 3,200 students per district.
Thielen says debating "how accurate" the information presented by the governor deflects attention from the issue. Be that as it may, accurate data is required if the public is to decide the future of public education. Further, the political debate about school districts and multiple boards should take a back seat to making changes that we know directly affect student performance. The question should be less about who is right, and more about what is right.