May is Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, a time to reflect on and recognize the contribution and influence of AAPI and the impact they have had on our country’s culture and history. For example, May 1st is Lei Day, a day that is meant to celebrate the spirit of aloha by giving and/or receiving a lei. AAPI Heritage Month also celebrates other achievements of these groups, including commemorating the migration of the first immigrants from Japan to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. While it is important to celebrate AAPI cultures and people, it is equally important to recognize many of the hardships and challenges that these groups have had to overcome, and those they still continue to face today.
Arguably, some of the greatest challenges faced by our society tie back to the education system and specifically, the achievement gap between students from different ethnic, racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. In Hawaii, the achievement gap relates to the long history of colonization in the Hawaiian Islands. Captain Cook’s visit to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778 brought about what many people feel was the beginning of the end of the indigenous society and culture. Like many other ethnic and cultural groups around the world who fell victim to European and Western colonization. Ultimately, the annexation of Hawaii, which followed Cook’s initial colonization of the islands, led to a drastic change in power, shifting it from the hands of the Native people to the United States government. Today, Native Hawaiians continue to experience the lasting effects and influences of Western colonization.1, 9,
Today, there are more than 500 K-12 schools in the state of Hawaii—256 public, 137 private, 31 charter6—most of which use a Western education model. Within Hawaii’s education system, Native Hawaiians have some of the lowest academic achievement and attainment levels in the state.4, 7, 9, 10, 12 Native Hawaiian students are also more likely to experience numerous social, behavioral, and environmental problems, and poor physical and mental health.
Schools prepare students for their adult lives and entrance into the society-at-large by providing students with environments where they can learn to engage with and react to others. In addition to formal courses in English, history, and mathematics, education systems also enhance students’ cultural knowledge—learning right from wrong, how to interact with others, how to define oneself in relation to the rest of the world2. Many of these interactions are guided by visible characteristics or traits like skin color, clothing, hair style, or other outward appearances. Although it is common for identity to be interpreted in a variety of ways, studies have found that those who possess certain dominant traits—race (Black or colored), culture (non-American), and gender (female)—that do not conform to societal norms are more likely to experience hardships and obstacles during the course of their academic careers and throughout their lives. These experiences will often have negative effects on that individual’s educational attainment and aspirations.3, 15
Other issues can be caused by discrepancies between what students learn at home from their families which starts at an early age, to what is taught to them at school. Native Hawaiian families will often socialize and teach their children in accordance with the traditional Hawaiian cultural beliefs and norms. Historically, Hawaiians used an intricate agricultural system of irrigation, and a prevailing belief that the land, or ‘āina (literally meaning, that which feeds), was the body of their gods, so sacred that it could be cared for but not owned. Hawaiian people also utilized an oral history and a spiritual tradition (kapu system), which served as religion and law. Even though some of these beliefs and practices are no longer used, many traditional Hawaiian values have continued to play a major part in the home lives of Native Hawaiians today. While this has served to keep the spirit of aloha alive in the Hawaiian Islands, it has also unintentionally devastated the academic prospects, achievements, and attainment for Native Hawaiians students across the state.
Most of the values and beliefs of traditional Hawaiian culture conflict with the “dominant” white middle-class values that are taught in most American schools. “Anglo-American culture tend[s] to place greater value on the subjugation of nature and competition with others, reliance on experts…[using] analytical approaches”5 to problem-solve, independence, and individualism.14, 17 Literature on education in Hawaii and past studies of academic achievement and attainment has found that Native Hawaiians have difficulty learning because they are often faced with issues of cultural conflict in the education system. The curricula used by most schools is usually developed and written from a Western colonial standpoint.
Studies also found that Native Hawaiian students were often confronted with racist experiences and stereotypes at school by other students, and by teachers and other faculty members at their schools. These incidents were sometimes deliberate – name-calling and the use of racial slurs12– and were sometimes unintentional situations in which students felt that teachers or other students had lower expectations of them based on their racial, ethnic, or cultural background.8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 16, 17 Native Hawaiian students who have had difficulty conforming to and adopting Western values are often seen as having less ability to succeed academically, and face more challenges in being successful later on in life.
As someone who works in the health care field, serving some of our society’s most vulnerable populations, I believe it is extremely important to understand the relationship between education and health within a broader social context. Education is directly tied to individuals’ abilities to be financially secure, retain employment, stable housing, and socio-economic success. Over time, and as the gap has increased between working and middle-class, so to have the social inequities in our society as well as disparities in health – illness, chronic disease, mental health issues, and poor health outcomes. It is imperative to continue to look to population health management strategies and whole-person care, understanding that health and social determinants are inextricably linked and must both be addressed to make a difference in and to improve the health and well-being of our members.
- Aiku, Hokulani K. 2008. “Resisting Exile in the Homeland: He Mo’oleno No Lā’ie.”
American Indian Quarterly 32(1): 70-95. Retrieved January 27, 2009. Available:
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture, translated by
Richard Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Brimeyer, Ted M., JoAnn Miller, and Robert Perrucci. 2006. “Social Class Sentiments in
Formation: Influence of Class Socialization, College Socialization, and Class
Aspirations.” The Sociological Quarterly 47:471-495. Retrieved November 14, 2008.
- Coryn, C.L.S., D.C. Schroter, G. Miron, G. Kana’iaupuni, S.K. Watkins-Victorino, L.M. Gustafson. 2007. School Conditions and Academic Gains Among Native Hawaiians: Identifying successful school strategies: Executive Summary and Key Themes. Kalamazoo: The Evaluation Center, Western Michigan University. Prepared for Hawai’i Department of Education and Kamehameha Schools – Research and Evaluation Division.
- Daniels, Judy. 1995. “Assessing the Moral Development and Self-Esteem of Hawaiian Youth”. Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development 23(1): 39-47.
- Hawaii Department of Education. “Hawaii’s Public Schools”. Retrieved May 28, 2022. http://doe.k12.hi.us.
- Kamehameha Schools. 2005. “The Kamehameha Schools Education Strategic Plan.”
Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Schools. Retreived March, 9 2009.
- Kana’iaupuni, S.K., Nolan Malone, and K. Ishibashi. 2005. Ka huaka’i: 2005 Native
Hawaiian educational assessment. Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Schools, Pauahi
- Kaomea, Julie. 2005. “Indigenous Studies in the Elementary Curriculum: A Cautionary
Hawaiian Example.” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 36(1): 24-42. Retrieved
January 27, 2009. Available: SocINDEX.
- Kawakami, Alice J. 1999. “Sense of Place, Community, and Identity: Bridging the Gap
Between Home and School for Hawaiian Students.” Education and Urban Society
32(1): 18-40. Retrieved February 2, 2009. (http://www.sagepublications.com).
- Langer P. The use of feedback in education: a complex instructional strategy. Psychol Rep. 2011 Dec;109(3):775-84. doi: 10.2466/11.PR0.109.6.775-784. PMID: 22420112.
- Okamoto, Scott K. 2008. “Risk and Protective Factors of Micronesian Youth In Hawai’i:
An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 35(2): 127-147.
Retrieved November 14, 2008. Available: SocINDEX.
- Poyatos, Cristina. 2008. “Multicultural Capital in Middle Schooling.” The International
Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations 8(2): 1-17.
Retrieved November 14, 2008. Available: SocINDEX.
- Schonleber, Nanette S. 2007. “Culturally Congruent Teaching Strategies: Voices From
the Field.” Hūili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being 4(1): 239-
- Sedibe, Mabatho. 2008. “Teaching a Multicultural Classroom in a Higher Institution of
Learning.” The International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities
and Nations 8(2): 63-68. Retrieved November 14, 2008. Available: SocINDEX.
- Tharp, Roland G., Cathie Jordan, Gisela E. Speidel, Kathryn Hu-Pei Au, Thomas W.
Klein, Roderick P. Calkins, Kim C.M. Sloat, and Ronald Gallimore. 2007.
“Education and Native Hawaiian Children: Revisiting KEEP.” Hūili:
Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being 4(1): 269-317.
- Tibbetts, Katherine A., Kū Kahakalau, and Zanette Johnson. 2007. “Education with
Aloha and Student Assets.” Hūili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-
Being 4(1): 147-181.
- Trask, Haunani-Kay. 1999. From A Native Daughter. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii