Hawaii Living: Schools

Hawaii Living: Schools
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Heard some horror stories about Hawaii’s school system and not sure what to do or where to start? Read on.

• General: Educational

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It feels like we’re always hearing something bad about the schools in Hawaii. I’ve heard it all and read it all. Everything from Hawaii ranking dead last in various ratings articles to stories about white kids being harassed by the local kids and everything in-between.

As with everything in this world, there is some truth in there but a lot of it isn’t correct, describes a very isolated issue, or is just over exaggerated. For some reason, it’s hard to get a handle on the exact situation we have with education in Hawaii. I have a theory as to why that is, and it comes down to the simple fact that you can’t melt every school on the islands into one pot and get a proper overview.

This theory applies to education everywhere on the planet. So why do we keep trying to get one overall view of the school situation in Hawaii when doing so just isn’t accurate? Let’s instead cover some common issues and questions that popup on this subject.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Go to any school anywhere in the USA and look at some math test results. What do you see? Some kids doing very well, some doing poorly, and plenty right in that “average” zone. Now go look at some writing test results from those same kids. Are all of the top math kids also the top writers? Nope. Of course not. Testing in general is just flawed. You may even have a kid who excels at Math in general but does poorly on tests. You’ll certainly have kids who are great at one subject but bad at other subjects.

Think about it. The next time your kids brings home a picture they colored to put on the refrigerator how many of you are honestly thinking, “wow, my kid may be the next Picasso”? In reality, few of you are. But some of you may see some potential talent and have an artsy kid on your hands. That kid may be great at playing music too but maybe terrible, or even just average, at science. We don’t think twice about that, do we? It’s normal, we’re all better at some things and worse at others.

So, this is nothing new and we know that tests don’t work. We know that plenty of kids who get poor grades or have terrible test scores will still grow up to be good people who do amazing things. Some of the world’s most successful people didn’t do well in school or dropped out completely.

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group wasn’t much for good grades. Thomas Edison, the light bulb guy, had very little formal schooling. Ray Kroc, the guy who franchised McDonald’s Restaurants into the empire you see today, dropped out of school at age 15. The list of these famous names goes on and on. And what about the countless similar, even if less spectacular, stories from others like them?

Bottom line, we can’t look at grades and report cards to define how good a single school is doing much less how an entire state is doing. This is why ideas like the “The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001” just don’t work. What works in one part of the country (or world) doesn’t necessarily work in another. One size does not fit all.

Racism Is Everywhere In Hawaii!

Only, racism is not everywhere in Hawaii. Far from it! Sure, violence does happen in schools (and beyond) and sometimes that violence may be racially motivated. Other times it’s just regular violence. Either way it’s bad. So is that an issue in Hawaii schools?

Of course, there are always going to be isolated incidents. These days, any issue we hear about is so well broadcast via the media and Internet that it feels like we’re always hearing about it. Schools had various issues decades earlier too, only we didn’t have the Internet to propagate those issues around the country and world like we do now.

Different regions matter too. You may even have situations where a particular school on a particular part of a particular island has more of these issues than another school. But guess what, that’s the case in every state in the USA too so this isn’t a Hawaii specific issue.

Why Is Hawaii Ranked Last?

Well, as I just covered, you simply can’t rank a state overall with any sort of accuracy. But, let’s explore that a bit more. Before we can answer that question we have to ask what the source of that assumption is.

Who said Hawaii schools are ranked last? How old is that survey? How did they come up with that rating? If Hawaii is ranked last, what sort of point or percentage spread is there between first and last place? Better yet, what is the spread between the last 20 states, because chances are good it’s not all that much.

Look at many of the ratings by state and you’ll see that the middle group of 15-30 states are often separated by just a few percentage points which means they’re all very similar. The top states will also be in the same boat, as will the bottom states. This same logic applies to looking at a group of schools within a state.

Let’s look at some real test results now.

National Center For Education Statistics
It boggles my mind that we have such an entity like the NCES in the government! As tax payers we’re funding this non-sense? You can find them nces.ed.gov and their site shows Hawaii is ranked 36 out of 52 total (they toss in a DoD entry and one for DC) with a score of 279. In their scale, the top state is Massachusetts with a 297 score and the bottom state is DC with a 263 score. So only a 13% difference between best and worst state? Doesn’t seem like a lot.

American Legislative Exchange Council
Their report from 2014 says that Hawaii is ranked #6 (very good) while South Carolina is ranked #51. Massachusetts once again got the #1 spot. But Hawaii as #6? Can that be right? Yes, but the report isn’t what you might think. As they say, “The 19th edition of the Report Card on American Education is a comprehensive overview of educational achievement levels, focusing on performance and gains for low-income students, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.” So the report is looking at low income students. Clearly not apples to apples with the NCES. My point here is that different reports focus on different specifics and thus you get drastically different results.

It all reminds me of NASCAR and Formula 1 racing where the first and last placed finishers are all within a very tiny margin of each other, making it all pointless. Sorry race fans.

Different Strokes For Different Folks

How do you lump every type of school and every grade into one meaningful result? Well, you can’t. What happens if grades one through nine do very well in Hawaii but grades ten through twelve don’t? Those higher grades drag down the lower grades.

It’s the same concept as an island with 50 schools total and 40 doing very well but 10 doing less than average. Those 10 drag down the other 40. It’s the same reason we, at LookIntoHawaiil.com, rank each beach, hotel, restaurant, shop, and activity separately and don’t group them into one overall rating.

And what about private schools? Should they get factored in or not? Then what about Montessori / Charter and other “non-traditional” type schools, do they get factored in? After all, some of those are public, not private.

Is It The School Or The Student?

At the end of the day, does the school itself matter? Well, sure, but is that all that matters? Of course not. Go into a lower ranked school and you’ll find some shining stars. Go into the best schools and you’ll find some trouble makers. At the end of the day it’s the student that matters most.

Obviously your goal is to give your kids the best chance to do well. Getting them into a better school is part of that. But I think, as with everything in life, they’ll get out of it what they put into it. Overall, if they go in with the right attitude and are willing to learn and work then they’ll do just fine.


Some schools are simply better, or safer, than others. Some schools have more issues with violence than other schools. Some schools are better outfitted than others. Some have better facilities, programs, and even teachers than others. Think about it, this applies to everything in life. You could go into a chain restaurant in one part of a state and consistently have a great experience but that same chain in another area may be worse.

This is how the world works and why you can’t put every school into one overall rating system. This is also why we wouldn’t tell you that all restaurants in Hawaii have a combined average of 3 stars, because that would be a meaningless number!

The solution? To research the individual school that you are planning to have your kids attend. This should be part of your planning process before you move here. It may impact where you choose to live on the island or even which island you live on.

To get started with that research and planning just search the Internet. USNews.com has a great research tool. You may also like the information at HonoluluMagazine.com or SchoolDigger.com.