English-Language Learners Opinion

Don’t Forget Southeast Asian Students

By Quyen Dinh & Brenda Shum — February 03, 2015 5 min read
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For Thao Xiong, the notion of education as the next great civil right is far more than a political tag line. Rather, for the senior at Design Science High School in Fresno, Calif., educational equity represents the line between the barriers of the past and the possibilities of the future.

“Several of the forms necessary for college aren’t translated” into her parents’ native tongue, Xiong said. “My mother had to take a half-day off from her job so she could speak to my counselors and get a better understanding of the California State University application, because nowhere on it was there an option for a Hmong translation.”

At a time when our leaders preach the need for all students to be college- and career-ready, when many say postsecondary education is essential for life success, too many students still face barriers that prevent them from pursuing the American dream.


This is particularly true for students like Xiong, Southeast-Asian-American youths on the cusp of being the first in their families to head to college. Thirty-four states report at least one Southeast-Asian language within the top five languages spoken in their schools by English-language learners.

Confusing forms, lack of translations in native languages, and other such roadblocks remain far too common. After more than a half-century of talk about an equitable public education and numerous changes in laws and regulations, not much has changed for the students who need such protections the most. Millions of learners, especially low-income students and students of color, are left to struggle in a system that has failed to invest in their educational needs.

In Louisiana, a large and vibrant Vietnamese-American community gives voice to its students and parents through groups like the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, or VAYLA-NO. There, community leaders work to help families gain access to resources such as English-language support and effective teachers and counselors.

Ongoing efforts are driven by startling revelations.

In a 2013 study of New Orleans students, VAYLA-NO reported that nearly seven in 10 Asian and Latino students who were surveyed said they had been placed in English-as-a-second-language classes that they did not feel were appropriate for their levels of language development. These students, the future leaders of their communities, described their learning environments as “facades,” where more time was spent playing on the computer, watching movies, and sleeping than on the rigorous English-language instruction they needed.

The challenges faced by Hmong families in Fresno, Calif. and Vietnamese families in New Orleans are mirrored in communities across the United States."

In a 2012 study, VAYLA-NO found half the ELL students in New Orleans whom the group surveyed (not just those of Southeast-Asian ethnicity) were not taking AP classes because institutional barriers prevented them from doing so. And 71 percent of Asian students surveyed said their parents “rarely” or “never” received forms in their native languages.

The challenges faced by Hmong families in Fresno and Vietnamese families in New Orleans are mirrored in communities across the United States, and they are becoming more difficult to overcome.

In October 2014, our organizations—the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, or SEARAC, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—and nine other civil rights groups wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and congressional and state educational leaders seeking improvements to the learning provided to low-income students and students of color nationwide. We told these government leaders that minority and ELL students deserve better local, state, and federal accountability systems that take into consideration multiple measures, including the resources available to students, information on school discipline rates and school climate, and details on ELL and minority students’ in- and out-of-school learning opportunities.

In many states, the disparities in school resources remain great, despite increased talk of equity. These disparities, coupled with a rigid accountability framework, place tremendous burdens on institutions that disproportionately serve low-income students and students of color, leaving them underresourced and ill-prepared to offer a college- and career-ready education for those most in need. Unequal access to high-quality teachers, adequate funding, rigorous classroom materials, and wraparound services only exacerbates the problem.

Data released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 show that black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native students have access to fewer resources than their white peers, in the form of experienced teachers and opportunities for rigorous instruction. Similar research from SEARAC finds low-income Southeast-Asian students are less likely to have access to the high-quality bilingual resources they need to succeed.

Fewer resources mean Xiong’s family and many like them can’t get the information they need in their native languages. It means that Cambodian parents who speak little or no English aren’t comfortable meeting with their children’s teachers and don’t understand what support services may already be available. It also means ELL students in some communities sit in front of a TV day after day instead of being provided needed instruction.

It means a student in a high-need school in Pennsylvania or Minnesota, states with higher-than-average Southeast-Asian populations, may never learn from an excellent teacher. And it means another generation of students—particularly students of color or ELLs—will hear of the importance of college, but without access to the resources and skills they will need to experience postsecondary education themselves.

We must call on policymakers at all levels of government to provide targeted resources that respond to every student’s needs. We cannot ignore the fact that a majority of children in our nation’s public schools are now students of color. We must not gloss over the reality that ELL students represent 9 percent of all those in our public schools. And we must not discount that more than half of all public school children today live in poverty.

Only by enacting these recommendations can we assure Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, and Cambodian families, and those of other ELLs, that they can navigate the college-application process, and that their children will graduate from high school college- and career-ready.

These recommendations are the key to ensuring that students and families across the country are not becoming lost within a public education system where their voices are not always understood or heard.

We need to take meaningful steps to overcome these obstacles to true equity. Without it, our schools will continue to divide the haves and have-nots, and civil rights in public education will be something too many students only read about instead of experiencing firsthand.

A version of this article appeared in the February 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Remember Southeast-Asian Students And Other ELLs


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