Education Chat

A Closer Look at Asian-American Achievement

Our guest and readers discussed the academic performance of Asian-American students.

This is all somewhat speculative. I’m not sure researchers(at least not this researcher) know for sure why class size matters at the elementary level. Also, I would emphasize again that the test score effects are probably modest.

A Closer Look at Asian-American Achievement

Guests: Don T. Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian-American Studies Center.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat about the academic performance of Asian-American students. Let’s get the discussion started.

Comment from R Soos, Teacher, Meyer Elementary:
Just a thank you for providing such an interesting conversation. Will be sure to read the discussion.

Question from Mary Porter, AP chemistry teacher, Revere High School, Mass.:
This article almost accidentally diagnoses the serious problem facing my Asian students in our very diverse, lower income, urban district. Somehow, we are assuming high achieving Asian students get too much attention already. My highest achieving black, Hispanic, and white students got accepted to Duke, MIT or Harvard (which now cover all unmet financial need) last year. My equally gifted and worthy top Asian students, who are from Vietnamese, Cambodian, or Thai immigrant families, face the same economic obstacles. They and their families are now having to go into debt to meet tuition at Boston College or even UMass. These are fine universities, of course, but the discrepancy in acceptances last year is clear to all.

They ask me about it. Is their achievement really less valuable to society because of their ethnicity? And if so, what message are we sending to the struggling, low-achieving immigrant students in this same community?

Don T. Nakanishi:
There are so many interesting questions that have been submitted. I doubt if I will be able to answer any more than a handful of them. There are also many questions that are beyond my specialization. In response to your qustion, Ms. Porter, I have seen many similar situations as the one you have described for decades. I think there are admissions officers who are aware of the tremendous differences among Asian Pacific American students, and try their best to evaluate an applicant’s record in the context of the high school that they attend. A large number of Asian Pacfic American students attend multiracial, low-income, as well as low performing schools, and yet they are oftentimes compared with Asian Pacific American students who attend stronger academic schools, families with college-educated and more affluent parents, etc. I hope the college counselor at your high school can help in advocating for your students and in enhancing the knowledge of admissions officers about all of your students.

Question from Charlene Tomas, Graduate Researcher, University of California at Santa Barbara:
As the state with the largest state population of Asian Americans in the nation (US Census, 2005), Hawaii faces three major challenges within the educational context: (1) the illusion that Hawaii is paradise and does not experience social ills, (2) model minority myth, and (3) Hawaii is so unique from the continental U.S. that data about the state is limited or excluded from national studies. With the attempt to close the achievement gap, how can we use Hawaii as a catalyst to contribute to education literature and highlight the educational barriers that the Asian American community experiences?

Don T. Nakanishi:
Actually, California has the more Asian Pacific Americans with over 4.5 million residents. Hawaii has the highest percentage of the population that is APA. I agree that there are many lessons that can be learned from Hawaii. Over the years, I have been very impressed with the work of prof Amy Agbayani of Project Manong at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Question from Jean Pak, Graduate Student Higher Education Student Affairs Program, University of Vermont:
Asian Americans represent a diverse group and lumped together in this box, especially Pacific Islanders. How do we address the issues of Pacific Islander students struggling not just in secondary education but also in colleges and the low acceptance rate into the UC schools especially elite ones like UC Berkeley and UCLA?

Don T. Nakanishi:
As you know, the research center that I direct -- the UCLA Asian American Studies Center -- issued a report on the academic attainment levels and issues facing the Pacific Islander population. It is available for downloading at our web site ( I think the report identifies some of the ways in which higher educational institutions, as well as the Pacific islander community, have sought to address these concerns. We are actually planning to have a conference in a few months to further extend our analysis with more reseaarch.Sefa Aina at Pomona College has been a major leader in this field.

Question from Siu Ming Luie, Grad Student, Boston College:
1) How do we stop people from feeding on and into the model minority myth? 2) How do we make distinctions among the APIA population without alienating or dismissing any of the subgroups and their experiences? The fear is that, when we say that on average the East Asians outperform Southeast Asians on different measures, we fall into the trap of being misinterpreted to suggest that one group is “better” than another. The intention might not be the case but information could be misinterpreted and misused.

Don T. Nakanishi:
You have asked a number of important questions. For starters, I suspect the model minority myth will be with us for many more years to come. It first emerged in the 1960s and it has been challenged by scholars, educational policy researchers, and others ever since. Data can, of course, be brought to bear to refute it, but there are other examples that can be cited (e.g., most of the University of California campuses having student bodies that are over 40% Asian Pacific American) to support it. On the other hand, I agree that there is a need to disaggregate data on Asian Pacific Americans and to examine the very real and significant differences among ethnic groups, income levels, generations, etc. Hopefully, one can do this in a constructive manner.

Question from Nalini Desikan, Doctoral student, College of Education, University of Georgia:
To what extent do parents of Asian American students emphasize, work with, and motivate their children to focus on their studies? What amount of time do these students spend with their families and friends from the same culture? What are the aspirations and philosophies in life in these families? How do these questions compare with students from other cultures and their families?

Don T. Nakanishi:
Please look at a book by one of my UCLA colleagues, Professor Min Zhou, who did a study of Vietnamese American children and families in Louisiana, and compared their aspirations and behavious towards their schooling with othet low-income students and families.

Question from Teri Lee, Communications Director, Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA):
Can you discuss the intersection of race and class in the academic performance of Asian Americans? I strongly believe that income inequities have been downplayed in this debate. What are your thoughts?

Don T. Nakanishi:
I fully agree with you. I think the disparities in income among Asian Pacific Americans has not received much attention. It is a surprise to many people that there are many Asian American students who attend low-income, racially segrgated and oftentimes academically under-resourced schools.

Question from Emily Eldien, School Psychologist, JeffCo Schools:
What recommendations do you all have about working with Asian families with regard to balancing the pressure of academic performance with mental health concerns? Many Asian cultures view mental health as a taboo subject and students who may become depressed or anxious about how to deal with the demands placed on them by their families seem to fly under the radar.

Don T. Nakanishi:
I am not an expert in this area, but I fully agree with you that this is a signifiant and largely unrecognized problem. I would recommend that you drop an email to Professor Stanley Sue in the Psychology department at UC Davis. He has been studying this and other mental health issues facing Asian Americans for nearly forty years and can respond to you and direct you to useful sourcaes and specialists.

Question from Ken Chieu, New York State Education Department:
Is there a gap or disparity between the percentage of high achieving Asian-Americans in school versus the percentage in the world of work?

Where is the glass ceiling greatest? In the public sector? The private sector?

Don T. Nakanishi:
I think there are glass ceilings that persist in different occupations and institutional settings. I do not know whether it occurs more in the public versus private sector. Look at the wonderful and thorough work that Professor Deborah Woo at UC Santa Cruz has done on glass ceilings.

Question from Terry Lopez, Ed.Asst. Capshaw Middle School, Santa Fe Public Schools:
Does this gap exist in charter schools? If so is it the same ratio?

Don T. Nakanishi:
I don’t know. I do not know of any studies on Asian American academic performance in charter schools.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this chat.

We had many more questions than we could answer. Given the level of interest, we plan to schedule a follow up chat on this topic in the near future. Stay tuned.

A transcript of today’s discussion will be posted shortly on

The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an editor and the guest speaker prior to posting. A question is not displayed until it is answered by the guest speaker. Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name and affiliation when posting your question.’s Online Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone.

Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.Chat Editors