Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Beyond the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype

By Rich Lee — August 19, 2014 4 min read

The theme of this year’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was succinct enough to serve as its Twitter hashtag: "#IAMBEYOND.” It represents “how Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have always sought to excel beyond the challenges of our time.” Like other ethnic-heritage months in the United States, this one aimed both to highlight the accomplishments of a specific group and to challenge misleading stereotypes.

Since AAPI Heritage Month, which fell in May, I’ve noticed how these dual goals can be at odds. They raise an interesting dilemma in the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community, as the dominant stereotype of this large and diverse group is simultaneously positive and detrimental. Particularly when it comes to educational achievement, the misconception of AAPIs as the “model minority” creates the risk of underestimating the needs of many students within this demographic who are struggling and falling behind.

When we look more closely at the numbers, they suggest that the notion of AAPIs as a monolith of model students couldn’t be further from the truth. There may be no other major race group with such varying academic performance within its student populations.

BRIC ARCHIVE

As an Asian-American who also happens to be an education policy analyst, the statistics don’t surprise me, based on my own experience as a kid growing up in Chicago—I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.

But first, the numbers: Beginning in 2011, my colleagues here at ACT began disaggregating data about academic performance for Pacific Islanders from the Asian-American demographic in “The Condition of College and Career Readiness,” an annual report that uses data collected from students taking the ACT college-entrance exam. To the surprise of few familiar with this demographic’s diversity, the contrast in academic achievement between these two groups of students was—and remains—stark.

From 2011 to 2013, on average, ACT’s annual reports found that 17 percent of Pacific Islanders met all four of ACT’s college- and career-readiness benchmarks, compared with 42 percent of Asian-American students. Compare those figures with data from 2010 and before, when the wide achievement gap between these two groups was masked by promising statistics showing that 39 percent of Asian-Americans who took the ACT met all four benchmarks.

These benchmarks indicate a very high likelihood of postsecondary academic success, and Asian-American students have consistently had the highest achievement levels of any group for which data are disaggregated.

While Pacific Islanders are just a small slice of the overall Asian-American student population, the ACT data suggest a need to further disaggregate data for various Asian ethnicities, as there is likely much more variance in academic performance within this large group than had been previously thought.

U.S. Census information shows large gaps in educational attainment among different AAPI subgroups. Among adults of Southeast Asian descent (Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, Vietnamese ethnicity), over 50 percent have not attended college, with nearly 66 percent of Cambodian-Americans in this category. Compare those numbers to those of Asian Indian, Filipino, Japanese, and Korean groups, in which fewer than 30 percent of adults have not attended college.

These trends are likely to be further magnified in the future, as AAPIs experienced the largest growth of any major race group in the country, increasing in total number by 46 percent from 2000 to 2010, to 17.3 million. Much of this increase has come from first-generation immigrants, representing more than 30 countries. Furthermore, the AAPI population is projected to more than double by 2060, to an estimated 35.8 million.

Numbers like the ones above can be enlightening, but personal narratives always hit closer to home. Which brings me back to Chicago in the 1980s, when my parents both worked 12-hour days, and when, beginning in 3rd grade, I was home after school unattended by anyone except my 5-year-old sister. Any questions about why my mom and dad couldn’t be around more were met with the consistent and honest response “This is the only way,” because bills needed to be paid.

There may be no other major race group with such varying academic performance within its student populations."

Though my parents couldn’t be on call to help with homework, and their income was limited, my sister and I grew up to fulfill the model-minority narrative, making them proud by getting jobs that involved working with our heads, not our hands.

The picture, however, was not as rosy for my friend Hui. When I was in 6th grade, his family moved to my neighborhood, and as two 11-year-old boys, we became fast friends. While we lived on the same block, our paths in school were headed in almost opposite directions.

Teachers and administrators thought Hui would just naturally catch up academically, like the other Asian-American students in my class. To be fair, it was an easy miscalculation since the handful of us (myself included) needed little extra attention; we adjusted swiftly and excelled academically.

It was easy to believe Hui’s trajectory wouldn’t be any different, but by the time it became clear that he wasn’t going to just catch up, he had fallen too far behind—struggling through middle school, then dreading high school, and eventually dropping out before ever finishing.

Maybe next year’s theme for Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month should be: “A growing number of us are in need of more educational supports.” It’s too long for a hashtag, but certainly more apt.

A version of this article appeared in the August 20, 2014 edition of Education Week as Deconstructing the Model-Minority Stereotype

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion Q&A Collections: Challenging Normative Gender Culture in Education
Ten years of posts on supporting LGBTQ students and on questions around gender roles in education.
1 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Equity & Diversity Video These Schools Served Black Students During Segregation. There's a Fight to Preserve Them
A look at how Black people managed to grow a solid middle class without access to so many of America’s public schools.
According to The Campaign to Create a Julius Rosenwald & Rosenwald Schools National Historical Park, the two-teacher school was developed between 1926-1927 and has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2009. The building is now owned by Cain’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, which sits adjacent to it.
The Russell School (also known as Cain’s School), a Rosenwald school in Durham, N.C., pictured on Feb. 17, 2021.
Jaclyn Borowski/Education Week
Equity & Diversity Letter to the Editor Former Teacher: Essay on Equity Falls Short
A retired teacher critiques an essay about equity in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Equity & Diversity Opinion 'Students Deserve to Know Our History'
Two educators wrap up a four-part series on how teachers should respond to attacks on critical race theory and lessons on systemic racism.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty