Sarah Ha didn’t have any Asian-American teachers growing up.
Ha was born in the United States but moved to South Korea when she was six years old; she and her little sister were left there for two years while their parents established a life in the United States. Enveloped by Korean culture, Ha all but forgot the English she had grown up learning.
When she returned to Worcester, Mass., Ha found herself isolated and bullied, an English-language learner with no Asian peers, teachers, or subject matter in school.
“When I went off to college, I realized much of the curriculum I was exposed to or the educators that were in front of the classroom did not reflect my identity, nor did they create a space for dialogue in the classroom where I felt as though I connected with those experiences,” she said.
SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics
While the relative lack of racial diversity within the teaching profession has been well documented, diversity-centered recruitment initiatives often target the two largest communities of people of color in the U.S.: African-Americans and Hispanics. But experiences like Ha’s suggest that school recruiters may need to focus greater attention on other underrepresented ethnicities, including Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“I think sometimes we’re seen as teachers of color or teachers not of color,” said Alicia Johal, an 8th grade science teacher outside San Diego who is of East Indian descent. “People, maybe they put us in a gray area, when really we are teachers of color.”
Although Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders make up 5.1 percent of the U.S. population, census data show that the AAPI community is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country.
Yet between 2000 and 2012, there was virtually no change in the percentage of AAPIs in the teaching profession. In 2012, the year for which the most recent information is available, the National Center for Education Statistics found that there were just under 66,000 U.S. public and private school teachers from the Asian community—about 1.8 percent of the country’s nearly 3.4 million teachers. In 2000, the percentage was around 1.6.
AAPI enrollment in teacher-preparation programs mirrors the profession as a whole. According to federal Title II data, Asians make up less than 2 percent of teacher-prep students in most states.
Ha is now the senior managing director for Teach For America’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative, launched in May 2014 to improve outreach to prospective AAPI teachers. As part of that effort, TFA held four regional summits in 2015 specifically for AAPI undergraduate students.
Justin Tandingan, a director of the TFA initiative, says the low percentage of AAPI teachers in U.S. schools often surprises people.
“Whenever I drop that 1.8 percent statistic on [my friends], and have them think about how many AAPI teachers they had growing up, and how that might have influenced them growing up, it’s a pretty significant moment,” Tandingan said. “It’s voided them of an educational experience that was relevant to their own history.”
Teach For America, like some other alternative-licensing programs, appears to be ahead of the curve on recruitment of AAPI teachers—6 percent of its current recruits are AAPI. Ha suspects that the organization’s recruitment in AAPI-dense areas and the competitive nature of TFA may be factors.
But many traditional teacher-prep programs don’t have distinct recruitment strategies for AAPI teachers.
“I think at this point [it’s] working as a bloc,” said Rodrick Lucero, vice president for member engagement and support at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, suggesting that schools of education often lump teacher candidates of different non-white groups together under their diversity efforts.
Johal said that education schools at universities need to take steps not to overlook AAPI populations already in their midst.
“I was pretty involved on campus and I had no idea that was something I could do at school,” she said.
Experts who study teacher staffing often point to a lack of diversity as a retention issue, but while studies support that assertion for black and Hispanic teachers, there’s less evidence that it holds true for Asian educators. A September 2014 report from the Institute for Education Sciences on teacher retention offered sparse data on Asians and Pacific Islanders, but what little it does suggest that Asians actually have one of the highest retention rates.
Data from the NCES also show a surge in the number of Asian teachers over the past decade, but Tandingan says a portion of that growth comes from greater reliance on foreign teachers used to help English-learners, as opposed to in core academic courses.
Indeed, to the extent that recruitment efforts focus on AAPI teachers, the need for bilingual educators often plays a role, likely as a reflection of the particular learning needs of many AAPI students. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, immigration accounted for 61 percent of the growth in the U.S. Asian population in 2012-13, far more than for any other group. As a result, recruitment of Asians and Pacific Islanders often prioritizes teachers who can help English-learners.
Even federal initiatives to recruit AAPI teachers tend to focus specifically on English-learning needs.
Under a 2009 executive order signed by President Obama, each cabinet-level agency was required to help improve the AAPI population’s access to resources.
Among the many goals outlined by the U.S. Education Department in its 2013 plan under the order was to “increase the number of AAPI teachers in schools as well as train existing teachers to work with the language needs of the AAPI community.” But by the time the department’s 2014 plan came out, there was no longer any mention of AAPI teacher recruitment. The goal was modified to “increase the number of teachers in schools who have the language skills necessary to address the needs of the AAPI community.”
A spokesman for the department said the change reflected a more “accurate and realistic” description of what could be achieved. The department had aligned its goals under the White House initiative with those of an existing federal professional-development grant program. Because of federal grant rules prohibiting favoritism toward any one ethnic or racial group in such programs, progress in recruiting AAPI teachers more generally became secondary.
Although often lumped into two categories, the term “Asian American and Pacific Islander” represents many subgroups: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Filipino, Indonesian, and Hawaiian are among the most prominent. Disaggregating test data by subgroup illuminates major achievement variations within the catch-all AAPI demographic. Pacific Islanders performed much lower on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, than Asians.
And academic achievement isn’t the only measure that matters, of course.
“Look at our suicide rates, and our bullying rates. That measurement is not always taken holistically,” Tandingan said, alluding to research showing the nonacademic struggles of AAPI students. “If we don’t want that kind of conversation, we’re actually erasing the experiences of a lot of AAPI folks in education.”
These nonacademic issues are the kinds of factors that advocates say could be addressed by increasing the presence of AAPI teachers in the classroom.
And such issues can get glossed over because of Asian-American achievement on standardized testing, leading to a stereotype that Asian students are a “model minority” to be emulated by lower-performing groups of students of color.
“Because we don’t hear someone asking for help, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not needed,” Ha said. “And I think with a lot of our AAPI students, that’s very much the case. If you even see students that might be academically performing well, you might not necessarily see the big picture.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2016 edition of Education Week as In Recruitment, Some Groups Overlooked