UH Hilo to award first Ph.D. at 2008 fall commencement

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
Posted: Dec 16, 2008

A Maori educator from New Zealand will become the first recipient of a doctoral degree from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo.

Katarina Edmonds will receive the Ph.D. in Hawaiian and Indigenous Language and Culture Revitalization awarded by Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikolani College of Hawaiian Language. Edmonds will receive her degree in absentia during fall commencement, scheduled for Saturday, December 20, beginning at 9:00 a.m. in the UH Hilo New Gym.

A member of the Te Whanau a Apanui and Rutaia tribes, Edmonds has an extensive background in language and cultural education dating back to 1980. She earned her undergraduate degrees in education and Maori and a master‘s in applied linguistics from the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. After eight years of teaching in mainstream, English medium schools, Edmonds became involved in Maori immersion education and discovered the value of teaching through the Maori language. Subsequently, Edmonds returned to Waikato to earn a graduate degree in bilingual education and to train Maori immersion teachers in the University‘s teacher education program.

Edmonds said she found the UH Hilo program attractive and a good match for her strong views and background on Maori education and language revitalization. She was also struck by the parallel of the two host cultures in language preservation.

"Maori, like Hawaiian, was an endangered language," Edmonds explained. "Like Hawaiʻi, we believe we have arrested the decline and reversed the trend. We have also learned through studies that children learning in Maori medium outperform their mainstream peers just like children who learn in the Hawaiian medium."

Her views are also born of personal experience. In addition to professional ties, two of her grandchildren attended Te Kohanga Reo, New Zealand‘s equivalent to Hawaiʻi‘s Aha Punana Leo. There, Maori serves as a second language for most of the students whose first language is English.

Edmonds‘ 200-page dissertation focuses on the validity and the reliability of tests that gauge students‘ Maori language proficiency. She first examines the decline of Maori, its revitalization through immersion schools and the need for a credible, accurate and universally accepted language proficiency test. She then builds upon the Maori proficiency testing for listening, reading, speaking and writing she conducted in 2000 and 2001 as an independent consultant at Waikato.

Her research utilized raters to grade the test and her dissertation examines the scoring to determine whether the proficiency test for writing is a valid and reliable measure of what the students have learned when judged by international standards.

Edmonds‘ supervisory committee brought together a virtual Who‘s Who of experts in indigenous and Maori language and culture. The seven-member panel included both Waikato‘s past and present pro-vice chancellor of Maori, a world renowned figure on language testing, and UH Hilo experts in Hawaiian Studies, anthropology and linguistics.

"Committees usually number five, so this was a big one," Edmonds said. "But I felt my conclusion that the test met the criteria would be strengthened if my work was subjected to and withstood the most intense scrutiny."

Dr. Charles Langlas, a member of UH Hilo‘s anthropology and Hawaiian Studies faculty, who served on the committee, said the members pushed Edmonds every step of the way.

"The committee scrutinized much of Katarina's work in earlier drafts prior to her defense and required her to make changes to bring it up to our standards in the final version," Langlas said. "But that did not stop us from asking some very challenging and penetrating questions during her defense."

Those questions included an inquiry from Waikato‘s Pro-Vice Chancellor of Maori Linda Smith, who asked Edmonds whether she believed her work had lived up to the standards for research in the Maori community.

"My guiding principle has been ʻKaupapa Maori,‘ which means based on the Maori philosophical principles of "by Maori, for Maori and in Maori," Edmonds said. "The most important consideration during this entire episode was to maintain the integrity of my culture and its language. And if I felt that standard was not being met at any point, I would have stopped."

Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikolani College of Hawaiian Language Director Dr. Kalena Silva said he was delighted, but not surprised, by the success of Edmonds‘ oral defense.

"Katarina has worked very, very hard these past two and a half years," Silva said. "In spite of the increased scrutiny, she confidently and ably defended her groundbreaking research. Katarina‘s achievement provides powerful inspiration to native communities worldwide who, like Maoris and Hawaiians, seek to revitalize our languages."

Edmonds has already returned home to New Zealand, and will likely now focus on the fourth and final testing component.

"The New Zealand Council on Education and Research has already analyzed the listening and reading tests. They just couldn‘t do the other two because they lacked the necessary background in Maori language," Edmonds said. "But now that the template has been established, we can evaluate the oral testing and complete this important work."