"Diverse Providers" in Action: School Restructuring in Hawaii
An Interview with Frederick M. Hess and Juliet P. Squire

1. You have just released a working paper on Diverse Providers in Hawaii. What started this endeavor?

Despite all of the attention to NCLB, there is a vanishingly small body of research on how states are approaching school restructuring--either on what strategies they are using or how well they are working. At the beginning of this project, we did an exhaustive search for related literature and dredged up very little material on the various strategies that are being used, and even less on how policy contexts and school environments affect the process.

The Center on Education Policy has done most of the work, to date, including case studies of restructuring in California, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, and Ohio. They’ve found that a vast majority of schools are being restructured using the "any other" option under NCLB and fewer than 10 percent of schools have chosen to work with outside management providers. So, the second impetus for studying Hawaii was that, even though Hawaii's student achievement results don't definitively show that the approach is working, its adoption of a "diverse provider model" is unique--and its efforts to streamline the hiring process and hold providers accountable suggest that it could have useful insights for school leaders and policymakers across the country.

2. Who are some of the external agents that have been involved in providing outside assistance? How are they chosen?

When its schools began entering restructuring in 2002, officials at Hawaii's Department of Education knew that they needed to bring in outside expertise to restructure failing schools. Individual schools had been contracting with external firms--like America's Choice--since the 1990s and Hawaii's Department of Education centralized the process in 2004 by issuing a statewide Request for Proposal to companies that could provide "comprehensive services." That first year, a team of five from the Department of Education evaluated and vetted ten applicants. Just three companies--America's Choice, EdisonLearning, and ETS--were approved and hired by the state to provide services including curricular and instructional support, staff and leadership development, and a built-in assessment system with the expertise to assist teachers with data analysis.

The three companies began working with restructuring schools in the fall of 2005. The state later issued a Request for Proposal for "array-of-services" providers, as well. These companies also provide assistance to Hawaii's low-performing schools, but tend to focus on more discreet areas of support like special education, professional development, or English language learners. There are 23 firms that have been approved to provide support in this more limited capacity, including WestEd, The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. RFPs for providers are now issued annually and applications are reviewed by a team of 25 individuals from the school, regional, and state level.

3. What makes Hawaii a unique environment for restructuring?

Hawaii adopted a "diverse provider model," but state officials knew that turning over the management of the schools to outside providers would meet with a lot of resistance. So they developed consultative rather than management relationships. This consultative model means that trust and communication play an even more critical role in the restructuring process. For instance, many educators we spoke with indicated that their relationships with providers are just as important, if not more important, than the expertise they offer. One said, "It's not necessarily about the model itself but about the personal nature of who is delivering it" and another said, "You've got to do the relationship first and then the people are willing to accept the …expertise."

Hawaii's close-knit culture also plays a critical role in helping school leaders and complex area superintendents to be informed consumers of external assistance. Many of those we spoke with referenced Hawaii's "coconut wireless," a term they use for the informal word-of-mouth communication network that rapidly spreads information across islands and between schools.

Providers must take their relationships and reputations seriously because when a provider is performing well in one school, other schools hear about it; and when a provider is not performing well, others hear about it. States that are able to construct or facilitate this kind of network might benefit from this shared information.

4. What kinds of tough decisions are principals required to make and how do the external providers help them? How do the external providers help them address these?

Officials from the Hawaii Department of Education emphasized in our conversations that Hawaii does not have a deep bench when it comes to school leadership or teachers. So, restructuring efforts have not focused on replacing school staff, but on improving those already in place. In addition, the school culture in Hawaii--and in most schools throughout the country--is collegial. One educator summarized the mentality as "harmony over truth." So building consensus is valued above calling anyone out.

In this environment, it's often tough for school leaders to make unpopular decisions, promote individual accountability, or upend familiar routines. External providers, on the other hand, are less wedded to the prevailing culture, more compelled to produce substantial achievement gains, and are willing to act as "bad cops." They can provide school leaders with the political cover they need to make difficult decisions. Of course, the advisory nature of the partnerships naturally weakens the effect, so it remains to be seen whether a more invasive management model would be more effective.

5. What are the union's concerns and how have they been addressed?

Unions have frequently expressed concerns about the use of outside vendors like those hired in Hawaii. And since one of the restructuring options outlined by NCLB is to replace a majority of the staff responsible for the failure to meet AYP, this has been a big concern for unions across the country. But federal law does not supersede state laws or union agreements, which prohibits such steps in Hawaii. So that approach has not been pursued and is not even listed as an option in the state's restructuring manual. Furthermore, as we mentioned, Hawaii has a high teacher turnover rate and a short supply of school leaders--meaning replacing instructors and staff simply is simply not a feasible strategy.

That said, Hawaii's restructuring efforts are unique in that principals and its regional "complex area superintendents" were largely shielded from any opposition from the Hawaii State Teachers Association. As a single district state, issues were resolved at the state--rather than local--level. And officials from the Hawaii Department of Education had frequent meetings with union leadership.

In speaking with individuals at the school and complex area level, it was clear that they were isolated from these issues. By the time the restructuring decisions came to their desks, the Hawaii State Teachers Association's questions had been resolved and they were focused on choosing the right provider for their school.

6. Hawaii now seems to have a culture of attention to results. How did this come about?

Hawaii's State Superintendent, Pat Hamamoto, has emphasized the importance of
comprehensive needs assessments and quarterly assessments in bringing a new attention to results. State teams conduct "comprehensive needs assessments" in schools entering restructuring. And each school conducts quarterly assessments in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and 10.

"Comprehensive needs assessments" are diagnostic analyses of restructuring schools' strengths and weaknesses. They're used by principals and complex area superintendents to identify what a school needs, the provider that is the right fit, and as a base line for measuring progress. Districtwide quarterly assessments, often provided and implemented by the comprehensive providers, help district and complex area officials measure and track progress. The state did not have an accountability system prior to NCLB and continues to have a rather fractured assessment system, so simply having this data on hand is a huge step. And having the expertise to interpret it gives school leaders the information they need to hold their teams accountable for results and significantly increases transparency.

7. How does Hawaii hold providers accountable?

Other states have partnered with external providers to restructure failing schools--but operate with the mentality that their job is done once the contract is signed. But Hawaii has paid close attention to the effectiveness of providers, discouraging schools from making bad choices, and ensuring accountability for both schools and providers.

On the front end, centralizing procurement allows Hawaii to impose quality control over the comprehensive providers that are contracted to work with restructuring schools. They vet providers based on whether they can provide the "comprehensive services" schools need and--when possible--evidence of a positive track record. The state can act as a filter of which companies it will recommend to its school personnel.

On the back end, subsequent meetings with the complex area superintendents, the board of education, and officials from the Hawaii Department of Education--in conjunction with quarterly assessments--mean that providers are regularly evaluated on their progress. Department of Education officials may encourage schools to switch providers if they don't see enough progress being made--and providers are retained on one-year contracts, so they can be readily replaced if the results are inadequate.

8. What is the significance of having a single-district state? How does this unique structure affect the restructuring framework?

As we said earlier, the single-district structure in Hawaii means that Department of Education officials--rather than local superintendents or school leaders--were able to address any issues with the unions. And that the Department of Education was able to streamline the procurement process. America's Choice and several other of the array-of-services providers worked in Hawaii before the current restructuring framework was initiated in 2004. At that time, principals had to work with the district procurement office and draft individual contracts for each arrangement, and then gain approval from the state Attorney General's office. The process could take six months to complete. Centralizing procurement has made this process much more straightforward. The Hawaii Department of Education writes the contracts and gets the OK from the Attorney General. Then principals can fill out an invoice--knowing that the provider is already approved. This minimizes the time that school leaders have to spend writing contracts and means that providers are able to begin working in a school in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

Hawaii has created an environment where employing providers is relatively frictionless and demands on school personnel are minimized. Hawaii has streamlined the hiring process and created an environment where the focus is on the value that providers add and their ability to cultivate relationships with school and complex area personnel rather than on quelling union opposition, formal sales forces, or the intricacies of bidding and contracting protocols. A high percentage of restructuring schools have chosen to work with comprehensive providers in Hawaii--so the framework seems to be a good way to import expertise.

9. How can interested principals, policy makers, and others get a copy of the report?

A copy of the report is available online here. The direct link is here.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. Juliet P. Squire is a research associate at AEI.

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