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School & District Management Opinion

Who the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype Hurts Most

By Peter T. Keo — August 04, 2015 5 min read
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In September, following its summer recess, Congress will continue debating a bipartisan overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. One item that regrettably failed to get support last month was a proposal by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, to report data on Asian-American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, students. Here’s why that is such a big disappointment, and why lawmakers on both sides of the aisle should rethink their decision without fear or hesitation.

The diversity of nearly 50 ethnic subgroups speaking more than 300 languages cannot be accurately captured in the use of the broad and single panethnic label “Asian.” It is morally wrong, and somewhat sloppy, to avoid this distinction. And yet, this seems to be standard practice in this country, including at the school and district levels.

The false labeling is even more pronounced when K-12 stakeholders compare white and Asian students with black, Hispanic, and Native students, especially when referring to the academic-achievement gap. If we think in terms of disaggregating student data, we can see that certain subgroups—Southeast-Asian-Americans, for example—within the larger AAPI community struggle just as much as other historically disadvantaged ethnic-minority groups, both in and out of school.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Statistics from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency show that Laotian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian youths in Oakland, Calif., accounted for 68 percent of felony arrests among youths of the same age from 1991 to 2000. Research also indicates that approximately 85 percent of the juvenile murders in Lowell, Mass., were perpetrated by Southeast Asian, namely Cambodian, youths. These offenders, as well as the academic and life outcomes of many other youths of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage, would suggest anything but the “model minority"—an outdated and overused term dating back to the 1970s. Countless young people remain invisible, in and out of school, because of this myth.

If that isn’t enough, then consider this: The Pew Research Center’s project Social & Demographic Trends noted in 2012 that Asians were the fastest-growing immigrant group in the United States, having surpassed Hispanics in 2010 by 36 percent to 31 percent. That growth suggests Asians will have an even stronger political voice in the near future. So it’s no surprise that taxpaying citizens from these communities are demanding voice and agency. Part of that call is for schools to be more accountable to the AAPI students they serve. But that can’t happen without disaggregating data, and then reporting data for each subgroup that falls under the broader AAPI umbrella to better understand the causes and consequences of inequality. We can’t support our children accurately without clear data. That’s the biggest reason why collecting data on AAPI students matters.

But there’s more. Beyond local, grassroots civil rights movements, little is known about the struggles of the Asian and Pacific Islander community. Even within activist circles, the intersection of violence, crime, poverty, and learning for subgroups of AAPI students is rarely discussed in public. That is possibly because empirical research data are beyond scant; they’re practically nonexistent. Even the most elite education research institutes claiming an ardent interest in “civil rights,” “justice,” and “equality” for all students still, more often than not, get it wrong when it comes to these students. On some level, they don’t care. But more important, there is no legal precedent to make them care. This is disconcerting, to say the least, but progress is being made. We can celebrate small victories.

The diversity of nearly 50 ethnic subgroups speaking more than 300 languages cannot be accurately captured in the use of the broad and single panethnic label 'Asian.' "

If we scratch beneath the surface, however, we can see something that belies—in fact, is entirely different from—the public perception about AAPI students. We will find that many of them come from neighborhoods and communities rife with poverty, crime, gangs, and other factors that negatively impact educational and life outcomes. In these communities, there are high rates of school failure, unemployment, and incarceration. Southeast Asian parents, for example, often suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, given their experiences of civil war and genocide in their homelands. Such trauma doesn’t simply go away once they enter the United States. Without treatment, those symptoms often get worse over time. One could argue that Southeast Asian youths inherit trauma from their families, which experts refer to as “second-hand trauma” and which may lead to violent behavior. These are the same ills that have gripped poor and low-income black, Hispanic, and Native students for generations.

Poverty doesn’t discriminate against skin color. It’s no surprise, then, that America is bearing witness to two, and even three, generations of AAPIs stuck in poverty, hindered by the same cumbersome, man-made structural barriers that have prevented numerous historically disadvantaged ethnic-minority groups from achieving educational and economic mobility.

It would behoove stakeholders to better understand how man-made structural barriers to entry, in school and the workforce, have an impact on AAPIs, and to compare trends across racial-minority groups. This is one tangible solution to break down stereotypes, because evidence may likely suggest that AAPIs are hurting. From there, we can more accurately explore prevention and intervention programs to keep them on a pathway to success.

What’s particularly perplexing is that we talk about “educational equity for all,” yet we exclude many AAPI youths from that conversation. The proposal to collect data on AAPI students matters, because it offers the promise of bringing youths directly disaffected by these issues into the conversation—with law to back them.

Sure, there are AAPI students who reinforce stereotypes, with good grades and great jobs. But there is an equally strong, and growing, counternarrative that rarely sees the light of day. School and district stakeholders also need to account for the voices of those students.

As a Southeast-Asian-American man who had to overcome poverty and failing public schools to get where I am today—too often ignored by teachers and barred from well-deserved opportunities because of the color of my skin—I hope that lawmakers, school administrators, teachers, policymakers, scholars, business leaders, professionals, parents, and community leaders will do what’s right. Part of doing what’s right is ending up on the right side of history.

Ignorance is never a good excuse for injustice.

A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Why Reporting Data on Asian and Pacific Islander Students Matters

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