Squishy, Marvin, and Educational Excellence in Our Hands

May 14, 2008 by Lois-ellin Datta

We're in a 5th grade classroom, Friday afternoon, after lunch, in a class bringing together graduate students in science (Fellows) and Teachers. The young scholars are eager to receive their very own, very dead squid on a paper plate. The students' task is to observe the external and internal features, using structure to infer the critter's function and its adaptations to the squidly environment. The instructors' task, both the Teacher and the Fellow, is to use inquiry-based learning. They are doing well, moving about the classroom and asking, "What are you seeing? What does it mean? How can you tell?" and other fine inquiry-style prompts. The Fellow is communicating accurately, fluently, engagingly. Both give excellent attention to the diverse students in the class, girls and boys, special education (SPED) and non-SPED students.

About 15 minutes into the event, a girl asks, "Do dead squid squirt ink? Ah, what now? A very poor instructor would brush off the question, "Later."  A poor instructor would answer incorrectly. A not-so-good instructor would tell the girl correctly whether or not dead squid squirt ink. This pair turns to the class, "What do you think, and why?" Forest of hands. Then they inquire "So how would you find out?" Another forest of hands. "Then make it so."   And they do. As the students are leaving, a girl turns to a boy she'd helped to find the feather cartilage behind the yucky tentacles, "What did you name your squid?" "Squishy," he says. "What did you name yours?" "Marvin," she replies.

During the past two years, as part of a study of science education, I have seen teachers, fellows (graduate students in marine biology), and students in scores of elementary and middle school classes, as well as some high school classes. A few classes were Camp Runamok where little evidence of learning could be observed. In most classes, however, students were engaged, the teachers well-prepared, and gems, such as the story of Squishy and Marvin, shone. These teachers are motivated, skilled in classroom management, and many of the children respond brilliantly.

Now fourth grade students are learning about forest ecology in our Hawaiian lands. The principal, who is a kumu hula and cultural practictioner, begins with stories about the plants to be studied this day, emphasizing how living beings were personified and how, by understanding the stories, one learned about the plant itself. The stories teach keenly observed Hawaiian knowledge, values, and pono action.   The children learn the Hawaiian, common, and scientific names for the plants and learn how to think about which are endemic and which are invasive. The lesson led by the Teacher and Fellow in partnership requires listening skills, language skills in speaking and in writing, mathematics in interpreting graphs and diagrams of plant distribution, and cooperation and working together. Activities are well-paced and varied, so each of these skills gets robust exercise. This integration of science, language arts, and mathematics was typical in the science education classes; so was integration of Hawaiian language, history, and values, and integration of social and character values. 

The System We Created

It can be hard to square these classroom observations and others I have made with the frequently expressed dismay over Hawaii's public schools. But compare our concerns with what we, the people, have ourselves done.   We the people, through federal and state legislation, have asked much of our schools over the past thirty or so years. We have asked teachers to accommodate classes of 25 or more in rooms designed to serve 20. We expect students to learn the rapidly expanding knowledge in all areas of science, as well as knowledge about the complex geopolitical world. We have accepted a centralization of educational administration in Hawaii including procurement. Well-intentioned privacy and disciplinary issues have limited what teachers can do to cope with disruptive students.   We have required teachers to serve equally well children so swift, intelligent, and bright they could soar like eagles in the same classrooms as children who are seriously challenged and require an adult learning assistant at their side.  In Hawaii, 10% of our children are Special Education. Their needs require 25% of our school funds.

We have demanded that our schools educate children where languages spoken at home are a mini-United Nations, both young children for whom second language learning may come relatively easily and older children for whom it may be more difficult. And we have chronically under-funded what is necessary to meet all these requirements well and fairly in all areas: special education, English as a second language, provisions for the gifted and talented, expansion of knowledge in many fields, and maintaining facilities that are most conducive to learning. Further, some of our children can be violent and disrepectful toward their teachers as well as to each other. From the view of some teachers, we do not support them adequately when they are threatened or attacked.

How We Are Doing

By and large, our teachers have responded magnificently. They have used their personal funds to purchase materials and supplies. They have worked out strategies to maintain focus and to accommodate disruptive children. They often have kept shining their passion for teaching and their delight in student learning. Some, actually many, of our children are doing well, although we are not doing right by our most gifted and talented students.  Given half a reasonable chance, our teachers are offering good and often inspired instruction and children are learning. Where this was not so in my observations, generally the teacher was not the problem. In the few Camp Runamok classes I saw, about 30-50% of the children are SPED. In one such class, there were 27 children in a small room. The teacher had no classroom assistance. In such circumstances, teacher morale can sag and getting through the day without major breakouts can be an exhausting achievement.

It is true, test scores in Hawaii are not reaching standards established by the U.S. Department of Education, although this is more true for middle and high schools than for our elementary schools. But understanding the "why" of this involves more than another criticism of our public schools and a sweeping condemnation of public education in Hawaii. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements involve administering the same tests to all students: SPED children, children who are just learning English, children eligible for free or reduced lunch, children from homes racked with spousal, alcohol, and drug abuse, all children. And a school must meet the requirements for all the subgroups, every one, to meet the NCLB standards.


In mid-April, our students took standardized tests for a week.  This year, the bar has been raised from 44% of ALL subgroups showing proficiency in reading to 58% and from 28% in math to 46% in math. The consequence of failing to make adequate yearly progress can include state intervention, replacement of school staff, and the take-over of the school (called "restructuring") by an outside contractor who applies a curriculum selected as showing evidence of effectiveness elsewhere. Some of these curricula have reasonably good evidence supporting their selection; some, on closer inspection, do not. There may or may not be efforts to adapt them to our Hawaiian values and culture.   Some contractors adequately train and supervise their staff; some have inexperienced staff calling the educational shots for teachers whose abilities exceed-actually far exceed-theirs.

In all instances, the school is treated as a stand-alone entity. If the school bus contracts weren't signed until November and schools began disruptively, it is the principal and teachers who are blamed, not the root cause of the problems. If the textbooks and materials don't arrive on time or in enough quantity, it is the principals and teachers who are blamed in NCLB. The contractors may get as much as $500,000 yearly. What might principals and teachers be able to do with that much additional money if they had the freedom to allocate it where they and the community saw the greatest need?

Cumulatively, we are sending a message to our teachers and principals that they are neither appreciated nor competent. We have done this for years, including the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" and more recent best-sellers offering condemnation after condemnation of our teachers, principals, and schools. 

We are acting as if we have forgotten how to recognize student, teacher, and principal achievements as fully as we do failures. We are acting as if we have forgotten how to show our appreciation.  We are acting as if we have forgotten that all things grow with sun, warmth, water, and good soil and that the spirit withers with the acid rains of constant criticism. We are acting as if we have forgotten education is a system. What happens in an individual class or school depends in large part on the centralized administration and its procedures, on the latest federal demands, and on state and federal funding in crucial matters beyond most principals' and teachers' control. 


What would happen if we turned our approach around:

  • Suppose we began by recognizing our most creative, energetic, caring, brilliant teachers, and supporting these classrooms of excellence, letting other teachers learn from them and helping them coach the other teachers, at a small, local scale. One approach to restoring Hawaii's drylands is nourishing kumu trees under whose shelter the forests can regenerate. What if we supported kumu teachers as appreciatively?
  • Suppose we honor our teachers' knowledge and abilities by asking them what they wanted to help them in their tasks, not "experts" who may not have spent much time in classrooms
  • Suppose we paid our teachers as if we thought our children were more important than our cars, say, $125,000 a year as a school in New York is doing. (The principal gets much less, in order to emphasize that the teacher and classroom are most important).
  • Suppose we looked carefully at whether a classroom or school seems to be in trouble, search out the root cause, and did what was needed to fix it, even if this meant refusing federal money so we could do what we believe is right in some instances
  • Suppose we emphasized students' achievements in all areas: the seventh grader who makes the national finals in spelling; the 11th grader who is a national finalist in geography; the 11th and 12th grade science team that is in the national science bowl; the talented young artists and musicians and actors; the students who have written, illustrated, and published a magical book in Hawaiian and English. Honor them, and their teachers. And suppose such achievements got as much newspaper space as student sports: applaud and honor our athletes, encourage more physical activity, but honor equally the many, often unsung, young people with other talents and their teachers.
  • Suppose we made it easier, not harder, to establish charter and innovative schools, provide support for the start-up and administrative issues that can slow down or even derail realization of their vision, and give them enough time to show what they can do and learn from them. Some charter schools, even in their early years, have such outstanding reputations that there have waiting lists at every grade. Innovations in Kona is one such school. Kanu o Ka 'Aina in Waimea is another. 
  • Suppose we applauded the schools and teachers that are effectively integrating academic and cultural values, where each component of the day has been mindfully developed to integrate these.
  • Suppose we brought together meetings focused not on school failures, but on celebrating, honoring, and recognizing our schools, teachers and students, and finding ways to grow-from-excellence.  And suppose we had some best sellers about this; bad news and disasters may make for better copy and more newspapers sales but we are at heart an optimistic, hopeful people and it's about time such a message was sent.


As individuals, there is much we can commit to doing.  We can:

  • Call the Parent-Community coordinator of our nearest school and ask what help is needed. It could be anything from beautifying the school, repairing lunch tables, helping on field trips, tutoring. We each know our skills and passions, and every one of them could be used.
  • Look at our nearest child. Our own, our family's, our neighbor's. Make time to be with this child, one to one. Read? Sure! Play games? Chess is a superb mental exercise, and so are other games involving strategy, not chance. Do some arts and crafts? Excellent. Find out what the child needs and match our enthusiasm to the child's.
  • Offer to help a stressed out parent once in a while so the parent and the child can have some quality time together, or the parent can have a breather.
  • Visit a school, a classroom. Sit and watch for an hour or so, appreciatively, looking at how skillfully the teacher engages the children. In even the worst class, there are moments when you can see the magic of teaching happen. Thank the teacher and show your appreciation. You may make these teachers' day and strengthen them for tomorrow.
  • Help shine the light. When people criticize our students, teachers, and schools, acknowledge their concerns, help check where they're getting their information, and share your own experiences, including what merits appreciation, what deserves recognition, what we should be expanding.

We can begin with what is going well, with strengths.   Our appreciation can help make a good difference: one child at a time, one teacher at a time, one school at a time.


Lois-ellin Datta is a guest blogger. She can be reached at datta@ilhawaii.net.

For further information, Edweek provides an excellent weekly update on new education ideas and information (subscriptions are free). An outstanding source of Native Hawaiian educational knowledge is the Kamehameha Strategic Planning & Implementation Group (see, for example, "Ho'opilina Kuma: Culture-Based Education Among Hawaii Teachers"). Very useful Hawaii Department of Education detailed statistical reports are available through their ARCH website.


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