Is poverty Hawaii's excuse for dumbed-down schools?
ALMOST 40 percent of the Hawaii state budget goes to education, and though the results have left much to be desired, there is even more bad news.
According to recent findings by the Department of Education presented to the House Finance Committee, lawmakers were told that students do so poorly in reading and math because, in effect, they are too poor to do any better. The committee was shown charts demonstrating how poverty correlated with bad test scores and how, with a few exceptions, poor neighborhoods produced poor students.
In 2006, 35 percent of students were proficient in reading, while 57 percent of not-poor students were proficient in reading. The math scores for 2006 were 34 percent for the not-poor students and 17 percent for the poor students. What does this mean to parents and lawmakers?
It appears that the DOE is trying to tell us that poverty is its strongest predictive indicator of poor school performance and biggest defense against our continual complaints about poor student performance. This view is based on flawed and misleading reasoning, and the DOE is attempting to pass the buck to the Legislature and blame its problems on lack of funding.
Poverty alone is not a barrier to education and never has been. Parental involvement is a much more powerful predictor of student achievement than poverty.
Using poverty as the explanatory independent variable on test scores suggests that neighborhoods that are well off would produce excellent reading and math scores, which is not the case. Hawaii as a whole, regardless of neighborhood, does not meet national standards for reading and math.
Using socioeconomic data to explain test scores also doesn't hold weight with our culture and values. Education is the great equalizer in our democracy. It is the route people have traditionally used to escape the poverty of their ancestors. If a good education is the passport to upward mobility, we're looking at the poverty-test scores correlation upside-down.
Misuse of this finding could lead to stigmatizing students with economic labels while we dumb down our expectations of poorer children. The DOE's link between poverty and education also could become a rationalization for the DOE and other policymakers to sit on their hands.
It puts us in a Catch-22. How can students escape poverty without an education if their poverty is seen as the cause of their poor education? DOE officials and lawmakers need to ask themselves, is it easier to raise someone's economic level or to raise his educational level?
LAST WEEK, University of Hawaii President David McClain told lawmakers that for the first time in Hawaii's history, people 40 years old are more educated than people 25 years old. Until now, children were always more educated than their parents. Another bad sign is that more than 60 percent of Hawaii's high school graduates entering the University of Hawaii need remedial reading classes (compared to 40 percent of students on the mainland).
The good news is that during the past five generations most of Hawaii's people have lifted themselves out of poverty and become the leaders and professionals of the state. Many of these, such as Sen. Daniel Inouye and members of the famed 100th Battalion 442nd Infantry, after serving in World War II, used the GI Bill to acquire their education, then became today's leaders. Other examples include the "boat people" who escaped from Vietnam and whose children began winning state and national spelling bees and other academic contests shortly after their arrival to this country.
Perhaps the DOE needs a modern-day equivalent of the GI Bill so our poor can excel and our not-poor students can pass with test scores comparable to the rest in the nation.
When I came out of the Finance Committee meeting I was sad to think that we now had another excuse for explaining away why Hawaii's kids are not going to get better test scores in the near future -- because they are poor. I shudder to think that we might be condemning a group of our young people to low expectations and poor academic achievement. History has shown that the only way that have-nots have become enfranchised within one generation is through education. How long will Hawaii's people have to wait?
Gene Ward, a Republican, represents the 17th District (Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai) in the House of Representatives.