After Slow Start, Asian-Americans Beginning To Exert Power on Education-Policy Issues

By Peter Schmidt — February 27, 1991 14 min read
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After fleeing from Saigon to Northern Virginia in 1975, Mr. Lieu decided that “the future of the Vietnamese-American community is right on the steps of the school.”

Acting on those beliefs, Mr. Lieu worked for several years as a resource assistant in the Arlington public schools and helped organize the Vietnamese Parents Association of the Washington Metropolitan Area.

After more than a decade of reaching out to parents, however, Mr. Lieu still finds that he and the children too often are standing on the steps of the school alone.

The growth of the parents’ association has been slow, and the degree to which the region’s estimated 20,000 Vietnamese parents attend meetings of the parent-teacher association and school board “is shameful for us,” said Mr. Lieu, who now heads the VPA.

Activists from other local, state, and national groups concerned with the education of America’s highly diverse population of Asians and Pacific Islanders express similar frustrations.

Virtually all agree that the parents they represent are highly motivated to promote education in the home, but that they are reluctant to try to advance their children’s interests to school officials.

The irony, several activists said, is that Asian-Americans have, for the most part, failed to mobilize despite the fact that their cultures are being misrepresented in textbooks and their children’s linguistic, educational, and emotional needs are being ignored.

There is evidence, however, that the sleeping dragon of Asian-American political power is awakening to educational issues.

Increasing numbers of Asian-Americans are being elected and appointed to positions in which they can influence education policy, and leaders of Asian-American advocacy groups say they are becoming more successful at building coalitions of Asian ethnic groups and other minority interests in addressing educational concerns.

Often acting through such coalitions, Asian-Americans have had a key role in lobbying for better bilingual-education programs, in opposing measures making English the official language, and in fighting university admission policies that adversely affect Asian applicants.

“Asian-Americans are understanding that they can become players in the process,” said Melinda C. Yee, a former executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans who now monitors Asian-American politics for the Democratic National Committee.

Noting a marked increase in the number of Asian candidates running for local political offices, Ms. Yee said: “Historically, we aren’t players in that way. Now Asians are emerging as a force.”

Advocates point to several events as evidence that the influence of Asian-Americans on education policy is on the rise:

Esther Lee Yao, an immigrant from Taiwan, was appointed last summer as deputy director of the office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs in the U.S. Education Department. (See related story on page 20.)

Ms. Yao said in an interview that her appointment to OBEMLA’s second-highest position reflects increased sensitivity in the Education Department to Asian-American concerns.

To further promote the cause, Ms. Yao said she would like President Bush to establish, through executive order, a panel to examine the needs of Asian children and set a research agenda for them. Last fall, she noted, the President created a similar panel to help advance educational opportunities for Hispanic Americans.

At Ms. Yao’s suggestion, the National Association for Bilingual Education last month held, for the first time, a special two-day symposium on education issues specific to Asians and Pacific Islanders during its annual conference.

Asian-American activists say the symposium was only the latest example of the powerful advocacy organization’s increased focus on Asian issues.

In California, a coalition of the Japanese American Citizens League and other Asian-American and civil-rights groups recently helped push through legislation that mandated the teaching of the Japanese internment experience of World War II as a violation of civil rights.

Korean organizations in California have also succeeded, they say, in bringing about improvements in the way Koreans are represented in textbooks.

The j.a.c.l. joined other Asian-American and minority groups late last year in helping to persuade the College Board not to make mandatory a 20-minute writing exercise as part of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

The proposed essay requirement had been the target of intense criticism that such a component would unfairly impair the ability of immigrants and non-native speakers of English to perform satisfactorily on the test.

The California Association for Asian Bilingual Education says it recently helped kill a section of a pending state bill that would have granted a bilingual credential to teachers who could not read or write a foreign language but who could speak it.

Association officials had argued that teachers with such a credential could not adequately meet the needs of Asian-American students.

During the past decade, the nation’s Asian and Pacific Islander population grew seven times as fast as the general population--from 3.8 million in 1980 to 6.5 million in 1988--according to a report issued by the Census Bureau earlier this year.

Preliminary estimates of 1990 census results put the population of Asians and Pacific Islanders at about 7 million, or slightly more than 3 percent of the nation’s total; by the year 2000, demographers predict, Asians and Pacific Islanders will number 10 million and account for 4 percent of the total population.

The 1990 census, immigration experts predict, will show Filipinos to be the largest Asian subgroup in the United States, with about 1.4 million. Following them will be the Chinese, 1.25 million; Vietnamese, 860,000; Korean, 814,000; Japanese, 805,000; Indian, 684,000; Laotian, 260,000; Kampuchean, 182,000; and others.

Although their share of the overall population remains relatively small, Asians and Pacific Islanders account for large chunks of the voting population in the metropolitan areas where, according to Census Bureau data, 93 percent of them congregate.

Thirty-nine percent of Asian- Americans and Pacific Islanders live in California, where they account for 10 percent of the population. An additional 30 percent or more live in New York, Illinois, Texas, and Hawaii. They can represent “a critical swing vote” in these states, Ms. Yee said.

Advocates caution that describing Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders as a single entity can be misleading, however.

Noting that that the Asian-American population is made up of more than 80 distinct subgroups that are culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse, experts note that the groups often fail to agree, much less work together, on a wide range of political issues.

Activists from organizations representing Asian groups complain that, despite the size and diversity of their population, their children have received little attention from the education establishment and have been lumped together under a few stereotypes that lead school officials to misunderstand their needs.

“No matter what kind of journal you pick up, you seldom read about Asians,” said Kamchong Luangpraseut, the immediate past president of the National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotion, and Vietnamese Americans. “When you do read about them, you deal with cliches. They are good students, or they are gangsters.”

Dale F. Shimasaki, chairman of the education committee of the Japanese American Citizens League, has argued that the stereotype of Asian children as an eagerly assimilating, high-achieving “model minority” has been popularized “to counteract the civil-rights struggle of blacks.”

In a paper presented at last month’s NABE conference, Ralph M. Lee, a mathematical statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics, and Samuel S. Peng, a senior researcher at the Center for Research in Human Development and Education at Temple University, said “national data on Asian- Americans have been very scarce over the years” and “almost nonexistent” when it comes to recent immigrants and certain small subgroups.

Current Census Bureau population surveys and earlier surveys by the U.S. Education Department have not included “a sufficiently large sample of Asian-Americans for meaningful analyses,” Mr. Lee and Mr. Peng said, adding that researchers have been forced “to lump all subgroups together.”

The two scholars said the first study to provide adequately detailed data on various Asian subgroups was the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. The survey included about 1,500 Asian-American students among the 24,500 8th graders sampled at 1,035 schools.

The “nels:88" data show that the population is diverse in its educational needs, the two researchers said, prompting them to conclude that the model-student stereotype “may mask some serious problems among Asian-American students that urgently need attention.” (See related story on page 18.)

In terms of scholastic achievement, Ms. Yao of OBEMLA said she views Asian-American children as distributed along an inverted bell curve, with many high achievers and low achievers and few students in the middle.

Where students fall on the achievement curve, Ms. Yao said, is a function largely of their families’ socieconomic status, the education level of their families when they arrived in the United States, and the number of years or generations their families have lived here.

Many Asian-American students, for instance, are the descendants of Chinese, Japanese, or Filipinos who migrated here in the 1800’s; many others are the children or grandchildren of a diverse wave of Asian professionals and students who entered the United States after immigration laws were liberalized in 1965.

More recently, the Communist takeovers of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos in the mid-1970’s prompted a massive flow of refugees, many of them illiterate, that continues, albeit in smaller numbers, to this day.

The educational agenda of a given Asian ethnic group tends to be influenced by the length of time its members have been in the United States, several activists noted.

In general, they said, representatives of the Asian groups that immigrated to the United States generations ago tend to give priority to issues of “inclusion,” such as the representation of their ethnic group in textbooks.

Representatives of Asian groups with large populations of newly or recently arrived immigrants tend to stress language issues, the experts said.

Moreover, many said, many Asian groups appear divided internally, against each other, and against Hispanic bilingual-education advocates on the issue of whether public schools should be asked to maintain a student’s native language or to focus almost exclusively on the teaching of English.

A four-year longitudinal study released by the Education Department earlier this month found that limited-English-proficient students can be educated effectively through both English-immersion and transitional bilingual programs with heavy native-language instruction.

But the study focused exclusively on Spanish-speaking students, and Education Department officials said its findings were not applicable to Asian students, who appear to learn phonetics differently. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1991.)

“Some Hispanic bilingual advocates say, ‘If you do not follow this approach, then you must be against us,”’ said Wei Lin Lei, president of California’s Asian bilingual-education association. But “what works for Chinese may not work for Hispanics.”

Mr. Luangpraseut, who supervises the program for Indochinese students in the Santa Ana Unified School District, said “everyone is split” in his district on the question of how best to teach Asian students.

“The core philosophy of bilingual education is that the children must understand the language being taught, but we are in the reverse situation,” Mr. Langpraseut said. “All our kids are in a classroom where English is the only language spoken. The approach should be how to teach English better.”

Ngoan Le, a special assistant for Asian affairs to the Governor of Illinois and the president of the National Association for the Education and Advancement of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans, said in a recent speech that many Asian-American educators have discovered that bilingual education is not desired by many Asian-American parents.

Indeed, she said, many Asian-American educators have found that bilingual education is “unworkable” for such populations as Southeast Asians because of a severe lack of qualified teachers.

Mr. Lei of the California Asian bilingual-education association said most Asians appear divided between those who want their native language taught in the public schools and those who want to leave native-language instruction to private Asian schools operated in community centers and public schools at night and on weekends.

But James J. Lyons, the executive director of NABE, said Asian-American opinion appears to be swinging in favor of bilingual education as a result of research attributing the weakening of Asian-American family structures to children’s loss of their native language.

Hai T. Tran, president of the National Association for Asian and Pacific American Education and director of the bilingual-education multifunctional resource center at the University of Oklahoma, said he sees Asians as highly supportive of bilingual education “on the whole.”

Ms. Yao of OBEMLA agrees, saying that she sees the Asian and Hispanic language agendas as “converging.”

As Asian-American groups have worked to resolve their differences over bilingual education, other issues--both educational and non-educational--have helped draw them together, several Asian activists said in recent interviews.

Several cited as galvanizing events the 1989 murder of Ming-Hai Loo in Raleigh, N.C., which led to the formation of the National Network Against Anti-Asian Violence, and the Immigration Act of 1990, which inspired a strong pan-Asian lobbying effort that led to higher limits on immigration from Hong Kong.

“Within the community, we realize it is extremely important to start to work together with other Asian groups so that we may have a stronger voice,” said Daphne Kwok, the executive director of the 8,000-member Organization of Chinese Americans.

Asian-American activists acknowledge, however, that they have a lot of work to do to build their base of support within their own ethnic groups on educational issues.

“We have not been able to mobilize our political influence much at all,” said Clara C. Park, the immediate past president of the 200-member Korean American Educators Association.

“The majority of the Korean parents are ignorant of the fact that we can raise our voices and be heard,” Ms. Park said. “They are not used to playing the role of being a good parent in the American context.”

Ms. Yao of OBEMLA and several Asian activists variously attributed the apparent apathy of Asian parents to cultural passivity, language barriers, their low educational attainment, a traditionalist respect for educators that has been fostered by Confucianism, and a fear of political involvement learned in native lands where dissent was met with severe punishment, even execution.

“Parents have never been an active part of our system back in Indochina,” said Mr. Luangpraseut of the Santa Ana schools. “The P.T.A. is unknown.”

“Education is the matter of the school, and the school is the matter of the teacher,” he added. “You dare not intervene and tell the teacher what to do.”

Preoccupied with ensuring their families’ economic security, many Asian-Americans, particularly those among the estimated 65 percent to 75 percent of Asians who are foreign-born, work long hours, leaving them little time to become involved in their children’s schools, several advocates said.

Their concern for financial security, they added, also leads many Asian families to discourage their children from entering the teaching profession, thus exacerbating the already-severe shortage of Asian bilingual teachers.

“Every family has to survive first,” said Mr. Lieu of the Vietnamese Parents Association. “If you want to survive, the children have to go into business or some kind of field where they can make money to help the family.”

Mr. Lieu, who most recently appeared before Arlington school officials to ask them to hire a counselor to work with the system’s 450 Vietnamese students, said many Vietnamese parents are complacent because the school system here is so superior to their homeland’s.

“When children go to school, they have everything--the cafeteria, the library, the gym, the lab,” Mr. Lieu said.

Bilingual educators note that Asian-Americans often are hesitant to respond to printed invitations to attend school events, but that they respond well to telephone calls and visits to their homes.

But Kingsavanh Pathammavong, who covers the Washington area’s Lao Parent Association as a correspondent for a Laotian-American newspaper, said such efforts bring parents to schools “not because of the meeting, but because they respect you.”

After one or two meetings, he said, the parents lose interest and stop attending.

Given such barriers to change, both Mr. Lieu and Mr. Pathammavong described themselves as weary and discouraged in their struggles to involve parents in education.

“I am looking for the young ones to substitute for me and do the job,” Mr. Lieu said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as After Slow Start, Asian-Americans Beginning To Exert Power on

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