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Challenging the Persistent Model-Minority Myth

By Elie Bilmes — May 23, 2016 3 min read
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As we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage month, it is important to look at stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated in our schools. Today, Elie Bilmes, Manager of Brooklyn Programs at Teach for America, looks specifically at how this issue plays out in New York City schools.

In New York City, the pressure to earn a seat in a high-performing school starts as early as age 3 and intensifies in eighth grade as students compete for admission to specialized high schools such as Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, and Bronx Science. Grades, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities do not matter; the sole criterion for admission at these top public high schools is the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), administered once per year to aspiring eighth and ninth graders.

Every spring, the SHSAT is in the news as results are released. Last year, only 12 percent of offers at specialized high schools went to black and Latino students, even though those groups make up 70 percent of the city’s eighth graders. Only 10 black students were offered a spot at Stuyvesant. Meanwhile, 52 percent of specialized high school offers went to Asian American students, though they make up 15 percent of the city’s public school population.

Many standardized tests, like the SHSAT, were conceived originally as a leveler, a way to assess academic achievement, absent of factors like a student’s socioeconomic status or her zip code. But as Curtis Chin explores in his new documentary Tested, success on many of these tests is often determined by a family’s ability and willingness to pay for test preparation programs, the caliber of the middle school a student attends, and a student’s comfort with standardized tests. Tested, which is screening for free in NYC on May 24, follows a dozen eighth-grade students and their families, capturing the stress of studying for the test, waiting for results, and ultimately making a decision about which high school to attend.

To some, these admissions statistics might provide further evidence of the model minority myth, which assumes that all Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) —particularly students—are financially and intellectually privileged, and that they all go to college. This assumption results in many Asian American students being overlooked and underserved, and ignores the unique challenges and assets of such a diverse population of students.

At first glance, the achievement data about Asian American students can look impressive, and some might conclude they are universally successful compared to other racial and ethnic groups. However, it is clear that the experiences and realities of our students tell a different story. As Tested makes clear, the story is much more complicated, and we should be especially mindful of this, not just during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, but every month.

At Teach For America, we continue to raise awareness about the specific issues impacting our AAPI students, corps members, and partners, and we work in coalition with individuals and organizations committed to expanding opportunities for the AAPI community. Our Asian American & Pacific Islander Initiative seeks to amplify the voices, assets, opportunities, and social realities of AAPI children, families, and communities. A major way in which we are advocating for our students is pushing for data disaggregation to avoid the danger of telling a single story about the Asian American and Pacific Islander academic experience.

Segmenting data into ethnically unique subgroups reveals that certain populations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are economically and academically depressed, and their omission from conversations around educational inequity further hurts and disenfranchises them. Additionally, given that less than 1.5 percent of teachers nationwide identify as AAPI, we are recruiting more AAPI educators to join our movement, even hosting undergraduate summits to foster healthy identity development among college students who are looking to become effective leaders within the AAPI community.

During this Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and every day, join us as we help provide opportunities for AAPI students and work to ensure all students receive an excellent education. Whether you help increase awareness of issues like the model minority myth or work to ensure nuances within the AAPI community are no longer overlooked, together we can continue to raise awareness of these inequities and help make a difference in New York and across communities nationwide.

Connect with Elie, Teach for America, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Curtis Chin.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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