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Steps being taken for educational reform in American Samoa

ERTF chairman Utu Abe Malae [SN file photo]
Proposal recommends DOE become a semiautonomous authority

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Educational Reform Task Force (ERTF) has drafted a proposed bill that, according to ERTF chairman Utu Abe Malae, "significantly restructures the form of public education in the Territory, and further updates the current statutory scheme which dates from the 1960s and 70s."

As part of its outreach, Task Force members have been getting airtime at schools across the territory, and their most recent presentation — with recommendations — was made before the Leone High School Parent Teacher Association (PTA) on Wednesday, March 21, 2018 at the school gymnasium.

"The comments and questions from the PTA displayed a keen understanding of issues and a passion to make a sea change in the way educational services are delivered to our children," Utu said.

The most far reaching recommendation is to convert the Department of Education (DOE) from a government department to a semi-autonomous authority similar  — but not identical — to the American Samoa Community College (ASCC), the American Samoa Power Authority (ASPA), the Public School System of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and school districts in the United States. 

According to Utu, the recommendation garnered overwhelming support from speakers, including senators, principals, teachers, retirees, and parents. 

The ultimate goal is this: The authority would be governed by a seven-member board of directors — five elected by constituents of each of the five high school districts, and two at-large members appointed by the Governor with Fono confirmation. 

Utu explained, "The board hires the Superintendent of Education. Twenty percent of annual local government revenues or $20 million, whichever is greater, will be slotted the local share of overall DOE funding. The rest of the budget will be from grants and other sources. In terms of the budget split, $20 million represents 30% of the present DOE budget and 70% is from grants."

Other recommendations include:

  • More parental involvement memorialized by an Agreement of Expectations;
  • A five-year planning process;
  • Dual language, especially in the early grades;
  • School fees implemented by rule-making for extra-curricular activities;
  • Emphasis on vocational education with articulation to other educational/training institutions;
  • Accommodations for charter schools, home schools, the gifted and education at the Juvenile Detention Center;
  • A format for summer school; and
  • A substitute teacher system.

When asked the looming question, "Why change?" Utu told Samoa News over the weekend, "We must change because whatever system we are following at present isn't working. In essence, the Governor asked the Task Force to find out why we continue to get poor results as measured by the performance metrics of our children in the public education system and to recommend solutions."

According to Utu, “Year after year, no matter who is Governor or Director of Education, the education outcomes as measured by standardized tests are sub-par and not improving. Parents are getting desperate but most cannot afford to send two or three children at the same time to a private school. It is a huge disservice to our children and to society to put kids through a dysfunctional public education system. E atamamai a tatou fanau, ae faaletonu le “system”.’”

Utu continued, "Since one famous definition of insanity is doing something over and over with the expectation of getting a different result, it became clear — and has been for years — that we have to Change (that is with a capital "C") the system."

To help get the message out, Utu said he and other Task Force members are speaking to educators and PTAs at town hall type gatherings. 

"We would also like to speak to churches and organizations such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). After that, we will submit our final recommendations to the Governor who will then work with the Fono," Utu explained.

 “Title 16 of the American Samoa Code Annotated will need to be revised in order to take into account the recommendations. The feedback from the educators, PTAs, legislators (who are members of PTAs) have been invaluable and, so far, the support for semi-autonomy has been immense,” he said.  

So how is all this going to make it better for the territory's children? Utu responded, “The goal is to get all our children educated and then be able to thrive in society. We cannot have a public education system where 80% of the students matriculating into the community college take remedial courses in language and mathematics. Even if one does not plan to go to college, there should be opportunities in Career Technical Education and the basics of literacy and numeracy must have been met upon graduation from high school. Not everyone can be a sports star or join the military.”

According to Utu, semi-autonomy gives the organization the tools to make decisions with less red tape. "For example, year after year, we continue to have problems getting textbooks to arrive on time or replacing teaching vacancies. The support functions (e.g. procurement, budget, treasury, personnel) in the present system fall under the purview of other agencies who may have other priorities."

The Educational Reform Task Force members are Utu Abe Malae (chairman); ASDOE Director Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga; Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale; Port Administration Director Taimalelagi Dr. Claire Poumele; the Governor's Legal Counsel Steve Watson; Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin-Finau; and Dr. Etuale Mikaele.