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.
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