Equity & Diversity

Teachers Expect More of Asian American Students. Is Bias the Reason?

By Ileana Najarro — October 18, 2022 4 min read
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Researchers have in the past examined whether teacher bias of Black and Latino students’ lower academic abilities manifests in less rigorous coursework for these students.

Now, a new study finds that bias seems to color teachers’ perceptions of Asian American students, too. Only in this case, the bias goes the other way: When it comes to Asian American students, teachers tend to hold higher academic expectations.

The new findings confirm what some researchers have known anecdotally for years, and supports longstanding concerns about a “model minority” stereotype.

Using nationally representative 2002 survey data of teachers from the National Center for Education Statistics, a wing of the U.S. Department of Education, Keitaro Okura, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, found that teachers report more positive assessments of Asian American students’ attentiveness and performance in their classrooms compared to their white peers.

Those findings held up even when Okura controlled for factors such as students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and their academic achievement.

Teachers were also found to hold higher expectations for Asian American students’ future educational attainment, generally expecting they would seek out a college degree or more. And they were more likely to recommend Asian American students for Advanced Placement and honors courses.

“Even when I compare Asian students to otherwise academically comparable white students with similar test scores, similar amounts of academic effort, similar parents or backgrounds, similar parental expectations, attending the same schools, even when I account for all those potential plausible reasons, the advantage still persists,” Okura said.

Okura’s peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Sociology of Education, doesn’t provide causal evidence for why teachers have higher appraisals of Asian American students. But he and other researchers point to pervasive cultural stereotypes, including the model minority stereotype, that could lead teachers to assume Asian American students are a monolith of inherently smart, hard workers.

“A ‘good’ stereotype is still a racist stereotype that actually minimizes the actual experiences of those students and of the communities,” said Wayne Au, the interim dean of and professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington Bothell.

Stereotyping students creates a harmful educational environment for all

Okura used the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study data for his study. Compared to newer NCES data sets, this collection had direct survey results from teachers that assessed their perceptions of students’ academic abilities, and how they would act on these perceptions, such as recommending students for advanced courses, he said.

He controlled for factors like the students’ higher standardized math scores and data showing that the students reported spending more time doing homework to avoid skewing the results. Even with those controls, the higher appraisals remained in place.

For instance, Okura found that math teachers assessed 42 percent of Asian American students in their class to be always attentive, compared to only 30 percent of white students, 17 percent of Black students, and 22 percent of Hispanic students.

Because the stereotype of Asian American students’ academic abilities still persists in the mainstream, Okura said there’s no particular reason to think that these findings have shifted since 2002.

The model minority stereotype, something Au in Washington state has studied, presents a possible explanation. It’s a construction of Asian Americans as a successful, monolithic group that overcame challenges such as racism. But the stereotype obscures the diversity of experience of Asian Americans and downplays key historical touchtones.

It wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, for example, that Asian immigrants were more readily allowed into the United States, and even then those able to do so were more likely college educated with enough money to afford entering the country, Au said.

In the context of K-12 education, the stereotype hurts Asian American students and their peers.

Students can feel like they can’t live up to the stereotype. And because they are perceived to be a monolith, teachers could end up overlooking the unique life goals and pursuits students have especially in the areas of the arts and sports, Okura said. Their mental health needs may also be overlooked as a result of assuming that Asian American students aren’t stressed out by work.

And the racist stereotype pits Asian American students against their peers, with Black and Latino students measured against them as less successful minority groups. Some white peers resent Asian Americans, believing that they have an easier time getting high test scores and even go so far as to think these students are taking their spots at top universities, Au said.

Both Okura and Au recommend teachers take time to be more cognizant of their racialized assumptions and how they can manifest in the classroom, as well as learning more about the history of the racialization of Asian Americans.

“We need to really have critical self reflection and examine our own racism and biases around this kind of stuff because if we’re not aware of them, and if we’re not on top of them in a critical way … then that’s when we start operationalizing these things in real life in real concrete ways that have material impacts on students,” Au said.

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