Can the Feds Bust the Asian American ‘Model Minority’ Myth for Good?

A new data collection initiative hopes to spotlight the achievement discrepancies between groups.
(Photo: Dann Tardif/Getty Images)
May 5, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Forget the tired stereotype of the “Tiger Mom” who demands A’s and perfect violin performances from her Asian American children—or else. A new project from the U.S. Department of Education aims to dispel the “model minority” myth and turn the spotlight on the real academic struggles of Asian American and Pacific Islander students in the nation’s public schools.

The data disaggregation effort will give states $1 million in federal grants to collect accurate school performance information on K–12 kids from various Asian American and Pacific Islander backgrounds, Secretary of Education John King announced in a video message released Wednesday. The program is part of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which since 2009 has sought to improve the quality of life of people from those backgrounds. The information from this latest data disaggregation effort could give educators insights—such as how Japanese Americans do in comparison with Cambodian Americans or other minority groups—instead of lumping everyone under one Asian American umbrella.

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King noted that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—commonly referred to as AAPIs—make up the fastest-growing demographic group in the nation. They’re likely to be disenfranchised by the “model minority myth, the notion that virtually all AAPIs have access to a quality education and are affluent, which has prevented AAPI communities from fully benefiting from federal programs and resources that can support vulnerable and underserved people,” said King.

Robert Teranishi, a professor of education at UCLA, told TakePart that the need for this data is “one of the most important civil rights issues for the AAPI community.” Teranishi, who is also the Morgan and Helen Chu Endowed Chair in Asian American Studies at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, said the problem is that all data being bunched together “provides a misleading statistical portrait of what is happening for various subgroups that comprise the population.”

When educational attainment data on Asian Americans is grouped into a single category, it presents a fairly rosy picture: Just under 54 percent of Asian Americans have a bachelor’s degree, roughly 21 percent more than the nearly 33 percent of whites who have earned one, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2015. But when the numbers on AAPI students are disaggregated, the differences are stark.

Although students from Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Korean backgrounds have significantly higher bachelor’s degree attainment levels—some 72 percent of Indian American adults have a college degree—disaggregating data reveals that their peers from Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese backgrounds, as well as kids from Samoan and Native Hawaiian cultures, have markedly lower college-graduation rates. But because Indian Americans outnumber people from smaller AAPI minority backgrounds, they skew educational attainment stats to appear better than they are.

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The Golden State has the largest AAPI population in the nation, which makes addressing the needs of AAPI students a priority for the California-based Campaign for College Opportunity. Last fall the nonprofit, which seeks to ensure that all state residents have an equal opportunity to go to college—and graduate—released a first-of-its-kind report that disaggregated data on higher education attainment among 48 ethnicities in California’s AAPI and Native Hawaiian community.

“We specifically knew that there were wide differences among different ethnic groups that really get lost,” Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, told TakePart. “Part of why we think disaggregating data is so critical is that unless you know the differences in terms of students’ college preparation, their ability to succeed and get to graduation, there’s no way that an institution—both high schools, in terms of addressing and improving college preparation, or colleges, in terms of really supporting students to get to a degree—can target interventions.”

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Another striking gap the Campaign for College Opportunity report revealed is between the college graduation rates of Chinese American students in California—73 percent—and Samoan students, 29 percent. Similar gaps could be found in the data on Native Hawaiian, Cambodian American, and Laotian American students. “We found that, depending on the different ethnic groups, there was just a huge variance around issues of poverty, whether or not they were of limited English proficiency—all things that obviously affect students’ ability to be prepared for college,” explained Siqueiros.
A notable example is seen in populations of Hmong, an ethnic group that is spread across several countries in East and Southeast Asia, including China, Laos, and Thailand. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the group’s largest representation can be found in the heartland, in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The group is the largest racial minority around Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and David Shih, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, told TakePart that he feels “encouraged” by the federal push to disaggregate data because it can help both K–12 schools and universities better serve them.

Hmong people tend to have high poverty and low college attainment rates, but because of a lack of disaggregated data, the extent of their challenges across various regions isn’t known. Students from those backgrounds likely have parents who are refugees, “which really does separate the Hmong community from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans. I understand the challenges that they face in the educational system because of their unique history in this country,” said Shih. “I myself am Chinese American, and my history and experiences are quite different from most of the Hmong American students that I’m serving.”

Shih also expressed concern that data collection efforts might rely too heavily on standardized testing or other assessments of students’ English-language proficiency. “I’ve had a number of Hmong students who have been tracked into remedial tracks or lower tracks within high schools based on perceptions of their proficiency in English,” he said. “I’ve had students who are AP English students but are also asked to prove their English-language proficiency on tracking tests. Sometimes they’re diagnosed as needing English-language-learner services when they don’t need them.”

Shih also stressed the importance of educators analyzing disaggregated data on AAPIs according to gender. In Eau Claire, Hmong American girls and women are more likely to be treated as model minorities than are boys and men, who “are often treated similar to the way black and Latino males are treated,” said Shih. “One of the things I’ve heard over and over again is how often they’re discouraged from going to four-year universities, like the one where I teach. Instead they’re tracked into technical colleges or two-year colleges.”

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Skeptics that might think that allocating $1 million toward data disaggregation efforts isn’t enough, but Siqueiros remains optimistic. “Certainly the federal government isn’t going to solve the problem alone, but I think it starts to indicate to institutions that they should be using and looking at data in a disaggregated fashion,” she said. Teranishi echoed that sentiment, noting, “Eventually, states that collect and utilize disaggregated data can be a model of best practices for other states to emulate.”

As for whether more data will squash stereotypes about AAPI students once and for all, disaggregating California’s data has served as a challenge to the oft-repeated claim that Asian American students are taking all the spots at elite universities. “There is that perception, but the reality is that over half of all Asian Americans start at a community college in California,” said Siqueiros. “They’re not all at the University of California. It’s a very narrow conversation when you’re not looking at the data as a whole, and there are very real barriers and challenges that AAPI students face.”

Shih cautions that we shouldn’t forget how the model minority myth developed in the first place. “The stereotype gained a lot of traction not to praise or elevate Asian Americans—Chinese and Japanese Americans—but to shame black Americans and build up public support against black Americans and their calls for racial justice,” he said. More data will help reveal underserved AAPI groups and show “the experiences they have with systemic racism,” he said.