Asian-American Teachers on the Decline, Study Finds

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While the number of Asian-American students entering U.S. schools is booming, a new analysis suggests that the already-small proportion of Asian-Americans in the teaching force is slowly shrinking.

For cultural and demographic reasons, shoring up the supply of teachers from this minority group may be more complicated than many policymakers realize.

Like Hispanics and blacks, Asian-Americans have long been underrepresented in the nation's teaching force, according to researchers Xue Lan Rong and Judith Preissle. In their study, published this month in the American Educational Research Journal, they show that the proportion of Asian-American teachers has decreased as the number of Asian-American students doubled every decade since 1970.

By 1990, Asian-Americans made up 2.8 percent of the overall U.S. labor force and 3.2 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 17. But only 1.2 percent of the nation's teaching force that year was Asian-American.

Shortages of Asian-American teachers are due to factors different from those in the black and Hispanic communities, the researchers say. One problem in the latter two groups is that there are fewer college graduates and professionals to go around.

There is no such scarcity among Asian-Americans. Thirty-seven percent of Asian-Americans age 25 or older hold a college degree--a percentage more than twice that for Hispanics and blacks. Among Asian-American women who hold degrees, however, only 5 percent become teachers. Many of the rest opt for higher-paying jobs in technical and scientific fields where discrimination is perceived to be less of a barrier.

"Asian parents often say, 'What do you want to become a teacher for? Why don't you go to medical school?'" Ms. Rong said.

Not All the Same

Because American students of Asian origin or descent are often stereotyped as academic standouts, and thus less in need of minority role models than other minority students are, educators and policymakers disagree over whether the shortage of Asian-American teachers is a problem.

The authors maintain that the high achievement of some groups of Asian-American students masks the diversity of the population as a whole. Asian-Americans range from prosperous, highly educated, second-generation Japanese to rural Hmong refugees who may have never seen the inside of a classroom.

Over the past two decades, 66 percent of all Asian-Americans have been foreign born--the highest percentage of any minority group, according to the study.

For the large number of Asian-American students who are immigrants, teachers of similar backgrounds can ease the adjustment to school by serving as cultural mediators, according to Ms. Rong, the lead author of the study and an assistant education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Most native people can never imagine a rural Mexican kid's first day of school or what it's like for a 6-year-old Chinese girl to enter a New York City public school," she said.

Moreover, the researchers say, Asian-Americans' expertise in science and mathematics fields could increase the supply of teachers in those subject areas.

Bringing more minorities into the profession is also important for all students, the authors say.

"The American teaching force is the first sustained adult group outside of the family that children encounter," Ms. Preissle, an education professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, said in an interview. "To the extent that that group is limited in any respect it limits what children can learn--both in terms of what children can expect for themselves and in their adult interactions."

The researchers suggest several ways to attract more Asian-Americans to teaching. These include: higher pay, grants and loans for Asian education school students, school-system-sponsored outreach programs to the Asian-American community, and programs for Asian-American professionals looking to switch careers.

They also recommend tapping into the pool of 350,000 foreign students enrolled in American universities--more than 60 percent of whom are from Asia.

But other teacher-educators who specialize in minority recruitment say foreign students may not be the answer.

"Some cities have tried this, and what they got were teachers teaching children of poverty who couldn't relate to them," said Martin Haberman, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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