School & District Management

Study: Asian Students Uncounted, Underserved in N.Y.C. Schools

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — February 22, 2012 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read

Corrected: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect title for Vanessa Leung, the deputy director of Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.
The initial version of this story also contained an incorrect spelling for Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor and the founding academic director of Fordham University’s Center on Law and Information Policy.

A Bangladeshi girl who spends her out-of-school time translating documents for her parents’ immigration hearings. A group of Chinese high school boys whose teachers can’t figure out why they’re so disengaged. A Vietnamese boy who speaks almost no English and is the only Asian student at his low-performing school. A Korean-American girl at the top of her class at Bronx High School for Science.

They are among New York City’s Asian students, and their needs are profoundly diverse, says a report released last week. It highlights the gap between the perception of Asian-heritage students as almost universally high-achieving and a more complicated reality that scholars say holds true nationwide.

“The challenges around poverty and access issues are not things people think about when they think about Asian-American students,” said Vanessa Leung, the deputy director of the Coalition for Asian-American Children and Families, a New York-based advocacy group that was one of two organizations that released the study.

“It’s been very hard to be part of the dialogue on school reform because the image is so pervasive,” Ms. Leung said. “Even with our allies in education and amongst education advocacy, Asian-American students often become an afterthought.”

Through the report, she said, “we’re making sure that we are part of that dialogue.”

The report from the coalition and the Pumphouse Projects, a New York-based consulting firm that specializes in education justice, human rights, and economic policy issues, says that 95 percent of the city’s Asian-American and Pacific-American students do not attend the most-selective public schools and face the same challenges as many other low-income, immigrant, and minority students. The authors call for the New York City school district to improve its data reporting and the support and resources it offers those students, their families, and the educators who work with them.

While a spokesman for the 1.1 million-student district disputes some of the report’s findings, a prominent education scholar said the conclusions may resonate for Asian-American students in other cities across the country.

“Many of the issues are germane to the whole country,” said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor of education at New York University. He cited an Oakland, Calif., high school where “teachers and students said Asian students were doing well, the valedictorian was Asian, but [Asian students’] average GPA was 1.8, and many were dropping out.”

Among the Disadvantaged

The report pairs data from the New York City education department with findings from focus groups of Asian-Pacific American students and parents who described their experiences with the school system. The data show students in a wide range of educational contexts.

Asian-Pacific Americans make up 14 percent of the city’s public school students, the report notes. Many are clustered in the city’s most crowded schools. Another quarter are dispersed among 1,200 schools, including 256 schools where the ratio of Latino and African-American students to Asian students is 56 to 1.

High-poverty schools and schools with low numbers of Asian-heritage students tend to have lower test scores for both students overall and those who are Asian, few resources for English-language learners, high suspension rates, and low graduation rates, according to the report.

“Asian-Pacific American students share that reality with other disadvantaged students,” said John M. Beam, Pumphouse Projects’ principal analyst.

The performance of Asian students in those schools is often not publicly reported, even in much of the data used in the report. Under federal data-reporting restrictions, schools with small numbers of certain racial and ethnic groups end up withholding those groups’ scores to protect student privacy.

“Once you start disaggregating and you use smaller segments of a population, it becomes much easier to reidentify who the individual children are from a large data set,” said Joel R. Reidenberg, a law professor and the founding academic director of Fordham University’s Center on Law and Information Policy, in New York.

In the New York City public schools, the report says, those isolated groups tend to be Asian students. The phenomenon is so prevalent, it says, that in 2007-08, 302 elementary schools did not report Asian students’ scores, compared with 232 that did.

The authors “conservatively estimate that outcome measures are not available for almost 7,000 Asian students in grades 3 through 8 for our main data year.” The report calls for the district to find a way to improve reporting on the performance of those students.

Given the lack of access to such data, Francis Thomas, a spokesman for the city’s education department, said the report makes some overly sweeping claims. While the report notes that Asian students in low-performing schools don’t fare as well as their counterparts in better-performing schools, he said, the district’s data show that Asian students in those low-achieving environments perform better than students in other subgroups.

Mr. Francis also said that the report lacks budget data to back up claims about underresourced schools.

Language and Culture

The report also calls for more cultural competence in the city’s school workers, who need to learn “concrete ways ... to work with students and their parents,” said the coalition’s Ms. Leung. Teachers and administrators receive little training in working with such students, said New York City Council member Daniel Dromm, who, until two years ago, taught 4th grade in Queens, where he encountered a growing population of Chinese immigrants in 25 years on the job.

“If there was training, it was because teachers took it upon themselves because they knew they were going to deal with this group,” he said.

The city’s education department does offer translation services for schools, said Claire E. Sylvan, the executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, a group of 14 schools that educate recent immigrants.

“The district has been able to provide services that no one school could provide by themselves,” Ms. Sylvan said, but “schools have to plan in advance” to have documents translated, and services are available only during business hours.

Carmen Lin, a senior at the city’s Millennium High School, said she was often asked to translate at school for her parents, who were also unable to help her as she applied to colleges. “My parents don’t speak English well, and they didn’t know what was happening,” she said.

Monami Maulik, the executive director of Desis Rising Up & Moving, or DRUM, a New York-based advocacy group for South Asian immigrants, said many of the youths her organization worked with “could barely read or write.”

The Internationals Network’s Ms. Sylvan said the new report does a service because it “shines a spotlight on this community.”

“It will allow people to look at the data and explore these questions in a way that will move forward, hopefully, the education system as a whole,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Study: Don’t Ignore Asian Pupils

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