Definitely Not Old School

It’s all about the kids for state schools superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, whose philosophy is ‘Don’t make excuses and figure out a way to make it better’ – and it’s working wonders

State schools superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi is committed to doing the right thing for the students by fixing Hawaii’s troubled schools – and she refuses to hear excuses or accept failure


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Michael Kikukawa, Kaitlyn Slade, Ina Beatrice Deloso, Kathryn Matayoshi, Joshua Oyadomari-Chun, Michelle Leano and Alysha Leano

“If can, can. If no can, how can?”

This paraphrase of the pidgin profession of pragmatism was coined by Mary Correa, state Department of Education complex area superintendent for Kau-KeaauPahoa (Hawaii Island), as a way of embodying her complex area’s view on improving its schools. It serves as a perfect metaphor for the work that her boss, DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, aspires for all of the state’s 254 schools: Don’t make excuses, and figure out a way to make it better.

“Just make sure you are always trying to do the right thing for the kids,” says Matayoshi, who was appointed to the position in 2010. “If you make a mistake, you fix it and try not to do that again. It is not about blame; it is about are you trying to do the right thing for kids.”

Her refusal to accept failure as an option has borne much fruit lately. Schools’ test scores have been improving, especially in troubled areas like Correa’s and the Leeward coast of Oahu. She designated 18 schools in those two areas as Zones for School Innovation, meaning students were given an extra hour of school time four days a week, and teachers were given extra professional development days to hone their craft.

In an unprecedented development from this effort, six of the nine schools in Correa’s area achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (defined by the U.S. No Child Left Behind Act).

“Leadership is key to fixing troubled schools,” says Matayoshi of Correa’s staff. “Part of being a unified team is to ask each other really hard questions and to ask for help. No trying to hide things because you are worried about what somebody might think, but it is all about the kids and getting better.”

Success also is being witnessed at the state level. A year after Matayoshi took office, the DOE was hit with a “high-risk” label for its $75 million Race to the Top (RTTT) grant, meaning if changes were not made, the funds would have to be returned.

Progress had to be made. Matayoshi appointed Steve Schatz as assistant superintendent for school reform under the RTTT program, and just this month received a letter confirming that the “high-risk” status had been removed in two of the five areas.

“He knows what he is doing,” says Matayoshi of Schatz. “He is a former complex area superintendent, principal and teacher, but also someone who is very results-oriented. He was able to focus us on the right things and to get everybody moving.”

This still leaves three areas to improve upon with the next evaluation in April, but the letter from the U.S. Department of Education sent to Gov. Neil Abercrombie roundly approved the progress.

“Hawaii is clearly making gains in its reform efforts, as evidenced in the implementation of the Common Core Standards and the progress of its students,” said Council of Chief State School Officers executive director Chris Minnich. “I applaud Superintendent Matayoshi, Department of Education staff and educators around the state for their collaboration and determination to improve education for Hawaii students.”

So how is Matayoshi making these strides in the often-derided DOE?

Perhaps the answer comes not from how she does it, but in who she is.

Never an educator – she’s a lawyer by trade – Matayoshi’s resum√© contains none of the accolades of the usual administrator, but rather those you would expect to find for a CEO: chief of staff on the Board of Water Supply, executive director of Hawaii Business Roundtable and director of the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

Being an outsider to the game, she came in not trying to change teaching styles to match hers, but rather fixing the back-office support that would allow our teachers to do what they do best.

“Every job has taught me something, and all that I have learned seems to be applicable to a certain situation at the DOE,” says Matayoshi. “People forget what a huge operation this is – $1.4 billion in general funds, more than 20,000 employees. The business side of things needs to run smoothly so that the teachers can concentrate on teaching and principals can concentrate on leading in their schools.

“My business background has been helpful at this point in time for the DOE in order to get us back running efficiently. We are not there yet, but with a lot of hard work I think we can put some systems in place, repair some systems that have gotten out of date and get it to where it is humming.”