Equity & Diversity

Asian Students’ Needs Overlooked In N.Y.C., Advocacy Group Says

By Catherine Gewertz — July 14, 2004 3 min read
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The struggles of Asian and Asian-American students are being overlooked in the New York City public schools, in part because they are perceived as a high-achieving group with little need for help, an advocacy group contends.

“Hidden in Plain View: An Overview of the Needs of Asian American Students in the Public School System,” is available from the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families worked with a New York University researcher to analyze data to craft a portrait of how students of Asian descent are faring in the nation’s largest school district.

While they make up 12 percent of New York’s 1.1 million public school enrollment, and are the district’s fastest-growing population, students of Asian descent are the least understood, the nonprofit group said in a report issued in May.

The perception that Asian students are a “model minority” contributes to the understanding gap, the group said, as does the diversity of Asian languages and cultures. New York City’s Asian students trace their birth or ancestry to more than 20 countries, with Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan accounting for the largest portions.

The coalition urged district leaders to provide appropriate help to the many students of Asian heritage who are struggling academically, and to break down achievement data to identify subgroups of students who are having particular difficulty.

The group also called on district officials to address the harassment of Asians in school, redesign curricula to include prominent Asians, and find more effective ways to involve Asian parents in schools.

“The model-minority myth that says we are all doing well prevents those in a position to help students from seeing their needs,” said Myra O. Liwanag, the coalition’s interim executive director.

“Race relations in this country have evolved around black-white lines, [so] Asians and Asian-Americans are often left out of the picture when it comes to thinking about minority students and the kind of help they might need,” she added.

Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the city’s department of education, said that Asian students graduate at higher rates and drop out at lower rates than the citywide average. But the city school system is nonetheless committed to enhancing all students’ school success by raising standards, she said.

Hidden Difficulties

Students of Asian descent pass standardized tests and graduate at relatively high rates, which can mask the academic struggles of individuals or subgroups of students, and lead officials to focus help on groups with more worrisome statistics, said Vanessa S. Leung, the primary author of the report.

Asian students tend to outperform their black and Latino peers on standardized tests, but many who might perform poorly are not taking the tests because of special education or language exemptions, the report said. The portion of Asians taking the tests is actually smaller than for white, black, or Latino students, it said.

In New York City’s class of 2002, 67 percent of Asian students graduated in four years, compared with 70.5 percent of white students, 44 percent of black students, and 41 percent of Hispanics. The dropout rate for students of Asian descent increased from 7.5 percent in 1997 to 12.5 percent in 2002, the study found.

Asian students are underrepresented in special education programs, but those who are referred to them are twice as likely as students from other racial or ethnic groups to be directed to the most intensive programs, and are disproportionately designated autistic, mentally retarded, or speech-impaired, the report said.

Many Asian students come from homes with economic struggles. Their average household income is higher than the city median, but it is often produced by multiple wage earners, each of whom earns less than the city’s per-capita average, the study found. More than 80 percent of the city’s Asian elementary and middle school students qualify for subsidized school meals.

To better serve the Asian community, school officials must recognize its linguistic and cultural variations, the coalition argues.

Too often, the coalition said in its report, the school system views Asian parents as uninterested in being involved in their children’s schools, but long work hours, language barriers, and lack of familiarity with the American school system are the real barriers to greater parental involvement, it said.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Asian Students’ Needs Overlooked In N.Y.C., Advocacy Group Says

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