Hawaii Harnesses Teachers' Innovations to Improve K-12 Learning During a Pandemic

By Discovery Education

A former superintendent gives examples of exemplary learning projects led by teachers

By Christina M. Kishimoto, Ph.D. 

We know innovation comes from solving difficult problems. There is no more difficult problem today than figuring out how to educate 50.7 million students in our nation’s public education systems during a highly disruptive, global health pandemic. Prior to this crisis, we already had many students struggling to meet grade-level standards.

In the spring of 2021, as State Superintendent, I reported to the Hawaii Board of Education that pre-pandemic we had 25% of students in grades 3-8 across the state who were already struggling in math and English language arts. This means that the current health crisis has exacerbated an existing challenge. If ever there was an incentive to innovate in public education, the time is now, especially with new resources to do our work differently to solve a critical problem.  

The COVID-19 health pandemic crisis has gone on for much longer than expected, with schools, communities, and our nations around the globe grasping desperately at normalization. The prolonged crisis compels us to think about how, where and when students learn. Worldwide, tremendous investments are being made in public education. In the United States, $129 billion for public education was included in the tranche of federal relief funds called the American Rescue Plan. Now is the time to leverage these unprecedented funds to invest in teaching and learning modernizations that will mitigate equity of access challenges while stepping up technology-based innovations in public school designs. 

If we want to ensure an innovative public education system built upon a core commitment of  equitable access to quality public education for all students, then we need to focus public funds on two critical areas: 1) providing ubiquitous access to devices, connectivity, and high-quality digital content to close the digital divide, and 2) investing in teachers as innovators.   

Closing the Digital Divide 

Unequivocally, we learned during this health pandemic that public schools must provide ubiquitous access to devices and connectivity both at school and at home, particularly for our poorest and most disenfranchised students.  A connected device today is the equivalent to the textbook of the past—a necessary learning tool.  Because of this, the national E-Rate conversation has shifted, and $7 billion of the federal relief funds are dedicated to closing the digital divide. Yet, 18 months into the health pandemic crisis, there remain many public school children who are being denied access to the one tool—the connected device. 

High-quality digital resources are equally important. Engaging online curriculums, programs, support services, and more make connected devices come alive, empowering teachers to engage students in learning no matter where there are. Some states—notably Arizona, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—have proactively approached the challenge of connecting all students to high-quality digital resources by purchasing learning management systems such as Canvas and digital resources from Discovery Education for all their students, but more work needs to be done on this issue. 

If our nation’s schools are forced to close again for any amount of time due to the Covid-19's Delta variant, consider the opportunity cost for students who still find themselves disconnected due to basic connectivity challenges. Essentially, school systems not currently working to improve the entire range of connectivity issues are gambling against their students’ future and their own viability for excellence.  

Teacher Innovation 

Closing the digital divide for students is only one half of the innovation equation. Powerful school designs hinge on teacher innovation. Therefore, equal focus needs to be on incentivizing and supporting teacher innovation. Schools should expect teachers to innovate, which means we need to empower them by trusting them and funding them to lead high quality instructional designs. Teachers must be entrusted with learning design. The growing mistrust that has been created by the politicization of education over time, has made it difficult for some school leaders to trust teachers to innovate. Yet, we know that the very best teachers connect innovations with their communities and bring learning to life through powerful student engagement strategies.  

During the late Spring 2021, as Superintendent of the Hawaii Public Schools, we invested funds to expand a teacher grant incentive that would provide $1,000 for 1,000 teachers to support their classroom innovations—a $1 million teacher commitment. This investment in teachers has produced a diverse mix of innovative, student-centered projects including: 

  • A teacher at Konawaena Elementary School on Big Island received funding to replace her traditional classroom furniture with age-appropriate flex furniture such as bean bag chairs and floor cushions for her elementary classroom, along with Legos to encourage creativity during lessons. During online learning last school year, students independently showed their Lego creations to one another on the screen during lessons. The teacher astutely used the students’ own initiative to reconsider her classroom design. More than half of her students are living in poverty. 

  • A Dole Middle School 6th Grade STEM teacher in Oahu received funding to buy classroom drones to create hands-on lessons for his students. Over 75% of his students are students living in poverty.  

  • A teacher at Hana High, an isolated community in Maui, has embedded art, music, and design into her middle school lessons by using her grant to purchase iPad and Apple Pencils to incentivize student voice and creativity.  Students use these tools to authentically share their perspectives on what they are learning throughout the school year. More than half of her students are students of poverty. 

Teachers and their principals have been imposed upon by centralized directives that have led to generic applications of common designs for schools and classrooms in the name of accountability. This is due to the enormous pressures on superintendents by never ceasing mandates. This is why today we find that the professional capacity of teachers to innovate through unique and engaging instructional designs have not been fully leveraged.  

The major challenge to a teacher-led innovation design vision is the tendency toward the status quo. Thus, our collective call to action is to push back boldly against this pull toward mediocrity in public education. School leaders and boards of education must ensure a policy structure that supports teacher-led innovations including policies that guarantee every student will have the technology tools and the connectivity necessary today for learning; defining learning time within the framework of an anytime and anywhere learning approach; and increasing teacher empowerment around funding decisions to drive local innovation.  

Teacher innovation is necessary to quality education.  

Dr. Christina Kishimoto is the Founder and CEO of Voice4Equity and a consultant with Discovery Education.  From 2017 to 2021, she served as the Hawaii Superintendent of Education, and also served as a superintendent in school districts in Arizona and Connecticut.    

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.


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