Looking beyond the "model minority": Achievement gaps among Asian American students
In February of this year, closing arguments were heard in the federal case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit filed against Harvard’s Affirmative Action policy, which SFFA says discriminates against Asian American candidates by holding them to a higher standard. Regardless of how the judge rules, the case has highlighted the Asian American community and the inherent problem of considering the group as monolithic. It also calls attention to the “model minority” stereotype that portrays Asian Americans as economically successful, smart, hard-working and modest.
Looking beyond the "model minority": Achievement gaps among Asian American students
In February of this year, closing arguments were heard in the federal case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit filed against Harvard’s Affirmative Action policy, which SFFA says discriminates against Asian American candidates by holding them to a higher standard. Regardless of how the judge rules, the case has highlighted the Asian American community and the inherent problem of considering the group as monolithic. It also calls attention to the “model minority” stereotype that portrays Asian Americans as economically successful, smart, hard-working and modest.
he term “model minority” was first used in 1966 by sociologist William Petersen in an article about Japanese American assimilation, and continues to persist based partly upon wide-ranging data showing that Asian Americans tend to hold higher degrees and earn larger incomes than the general population. For instance, a 2017 report released by the U.S. Census Bureau said that more than 55 percent of Asian Americans currently hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to just over 33 percent of the general population.

In reality, Asian Americans represent incredibly diverse communities with different ethnic, socioeconomic, historic and migratory characteristics. When taken as a whole, struggling groups within the population are rendered invisible. Take the example above, where it is cited that over 55 percent of Asian Americans currently hold a bachelor’s degree. Digging a little deeper produces a very different picture: only 14 percent of Laotian, 17 percent of Hmong and Cambodian, and 27 percent of Vietnamese Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. While 86 percent of Asian Americans have completed their high school education — slightly above the national average of 85 percent — Southeast Asian Americans have significantly lower rates. For example, 61 percent of Hmong Americans have completed a high school education.

These two examples highlight why it is imperative for local educational agencies to disaggregate data sets for Asian Americans to target supports to high-need student groups. And districts such as Fresno Unified and Oakland Unified are leading the way with exemplary programs and supports that are reversing this dismal data.

Asian Americans in the U.S.
Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., with a population growth of 72 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to the Pew Research Center — and projections suggest Asians will be the largest immigrant group in the country by 2055. As home to the highest concentrations of Asian Americans in the U.S., California and its public schools have a particular responsibility to recognize the diversity of this population and provide targeted supports to help students succeed in academic and civic life.

Large portions of the Southeast Asian populations in California — particularly those from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — arrived in the U.S. as refugees, bringing with them very different needs than more established Asian groups that have been in the country for several generations. These refugees face many challenges to attaining success in the U.S., including language and socioeconomic barriers.

Only 14 percent of Laotian, 17 percent of Hmong and Cambodian, and 27 percent of Vietnamese Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher
Quyen Dinh is the executive director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization that advocates and assists this community in pursuit of social parity. She points to education as a path to equity and the power of student achievement data to either conceal or reveal.

“For us, education is one of the three major pillars for equity,” said Dinh. “We need our students and communities to be seen and served, and so often our communities’ needs have been masked and have been invisible. So many of our education opportunity gaps have continued to persist, despite being here in the U.S. for over 40 years.”

Barriers to learning
The majority of Southeast Asian immigrants came to the U.S. after fleeing Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam following U.S. involvement in wars there between 1955 and 1975. After the conflicts ended, political persecution and violence continued to force refugees across borders. Hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian people were resettled in the U.S. after the Refugee Act of 1980 was passed. This history contributes to the educational challenges that the children of these immigrants face.
Language barriers
A majority of Southeast Asian Americans have limited English proficiency. According to the 2010 U.S. census, about 9 percent of the population has limited English proficiency. For Southeast Asian communities, this rate is between 37 percent for Hmong Americans to just over 50 percent for Vietnamese Americans. Research shows that English proficiency is significantly related to outcomes such as earnings, occupational mobility, quality of health care, and the ability to participate in civic and political life. While bilingualism is an asset in many aspects of life, it also means that students and families might need extra instruction and services that can allow them to fully participate in school and bridge the gap academically.
Socioeconomic barriers
Asian Americans are the most economically divided racial group in the country, with the wealthiest 10 percent earning more than 10 times the amount of the poorest 10 percent, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Much like the data widely available for bachelor’s degrees, however, this income disparity is often hidden when taking Asian Americans as a whole. According to the American Community Survey between 2008 and 2012, the median household income for Asian Americans was $72,000, while the median household income for the general population was $55,000.

Looking deeper into the data, as the American Center for Progress did in a 2014 study, reveals that Asian Indians and Filipinos have the highest levels of household income, which aligns with their relatively high levels of education, and can also be attributed to the ways in which they came to this country, often seeking employment based upon in-demand skill sets. On the other end of the spectrum, Southeast Asian Americans have the lowest levels of household incomes for Asian Americans, in some cases, such as with Hmong Americans, experiencing poverty rates at more than double the national average of 11 percent.

Refugee status
As refugees, Southeast Asian American parents and children have experienced war and relocation, among other traumas that may have occurred in their transition to the U.S. SEARAC’s Dinh said the community experiences higher rates of mental health challenges than the average population. She cites a study that showed more than 60 percent of Cambodian Americans experience post-traumatic stress disorder, as compared to just 4 percent of the general population. And this trauma is passed on to the next generation, though they may have never experienced genocide themselves.

“We know there are high-end mental health challenges and other health issues within Southeast Asian families,” she said. “These issues are going unaddressed and are impacting their educational experiences.”

These factors play into the ability of affected Asian subgroups to obtain optimal outcomes in K-12 and go on to attend college and/or a successful career. Language and poverty barriers exacerbate problems as students try to navigate through the system themselves. But with the awareness that disaggregated data can provide, and with proper supports in place, students in these communities can and do thrive.

Where to begin
In the Oakland Unified School District, changing the equation began with a 2016 school board resolution to disaggregate data among Asian and Pacific Islander groups and the creation of the Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement Initiative. The board funded a new position in the district’s Office of Equity to focus on the initiative, collect the data and make recommendations based on the findings.

APISA Initiative Director Lailan Huen began with a three-month-long listening campaign in fall 2017, assembling 30 listening circles with hundreds of API students, families and community-based organizations; individual sample interviews; and 500 surveys to better understand student needs and shape the initiative’s activities and focus areas.

“It took a year to uncover all of the data because the state and federal government are really limited in the categories they collect,” said Huen. “The listening campaign work has really informed every decision we make, from what we program to what we will focus on going forward.”

The data showed that Arabic-speaking (the API office includes the Middle Eastern community), Pacific Islander and Cambodian students were most at risk academically, and that 58 percent of 500 surveyed API students did not feel safe at schools. The office has made a series of recommendations that will soon be presented to the school board and address issues such as a lack of connection with the curriculum; limited translation that inhibits families from engaging in their students’ education and access to teachers and other staff; and the inequitable access to college preparation.

The APISA Initiative has already begun much of the cultural groundwork that is necessary to nurture a sense of belonging in the community — something students in the listening circles did not feel. The office is working with college fellows to develop Southeast Asian curriculum currently missing from textbooks; leading equity, implicit bias and culturally responsive practices professional development workshops; and collaborating with restorative justice and sanctuary schools task forces to raise awareness and healing for Cambodian students and families who suffer from intergenerational trauma.

Best practices in action
Fresno Unified School District in the Central Valley is home to the second largest Hmong population in the U.S. Statistics presented earlier in this article cite the Hmong population as one of the most academically challenged, with some of the lowest high school graduation and college attendance rates among Asian American subgroups. But in Fresno, the Hmong population is bucking that trend. Hmong students consistently perform better in standardized tests in English language arts and math and graduate at higher rates than the average of all Fresno USD students.

Fresno USD trustee Valerie Davis reflected on the success of the district’s Hmong students and emphasized the importance of listening to the voices of the community. She recalls how a report from the English Learner Taskforce in 2010 brought the district awareness of the needs of the Hmong community. The task force recommended investments into building Hmong heritage and language courses. “That was the spearhead,” said Davis. “It all started with the board saying, ‘How can we better serve our students?’”

Community partnerships
Fresno USD Instructional Superintendent Misty Her credits the high achievement of the district’s Southeast Asian students to its focus on supports and investments in the community, particularly its Hmong students, which is the largest Asian student population. She characterizes Fresno’s programs as focusing on community partnerships that enable the district to provide services on a wider scale and instructional programs that are provided to all students, particularly Hmong students.

“We have really strong partnerships with our community-based organizations that allow us to provide a kind of wrap-around service to the community,” said Herr. “We also partner with [Cal State] Fresno University in a program called ‘Journey to Success,’ where our students can hear from people that look like them that have been successful in college and careers, so the kids have that connection.”

Rethinking the curriculum
With a board directive to create Hmong heritage and dual-immersion language programs and board investment in staff to help shape it, Herr set out to build a new curriculum that would connect with Hmong students. She has created partnerships with other local districts and districts across the country with large Hmong populations. “We have partnerships with Minnesota, with Sacramento and with Wisconsin, where there is a think tank of experts that come together and work to build and standardize the curriculum,” she said. “We’re also a part of a group called the Hmong National Development. It’s the only national group of its type, where we’re part of a think tank of curriculum experts and writers to build and standardize the curriculum.” The work is still evolving and has already resulted in the district offering dual Hmong immersion programs and Hmong heritage programs.
English Learner program
Parent University
An integral part of the success of Fresno USD’s Hmong students is the creation of Parent University, which educates parents in their native language on what is happening in their child’s education. Topics range from general elementary through high school learning to the English Learner program to helping with the transitions between middle school and high school and on to college.

“Our mission is to empower and get our Asian families to support student achievement,” said Parent University manager Maiyer Vang. “We do that by providing our parents with learning courses to navigate the resources that we have to offer.”

Aside from its core curriculum, Parent University also convenes focus groups to create programs the community says its needs. For example, a current group is focusing on families of Hmong students with GPAs of 2.5 or lower in order to not only make the parents aware, but to collect feedback on ways to help these students get on target to graduate. Other Parent University activities include a District Advisory Committee that provides feedback on the district Local Control and Accountability Plan. Yet another function of the Parent University is to connect families with mental health and wellness services offered through community organization partnerships.

The road ahead
As the Asian American community in the United States continues to grow and immigrate at a rate greater than any other group, it is important for districts and schools to know the students they are serving. School boards can begin that process by adopting polices that require data disaggregation. With the insights provided by that data, investments into extra supports and partnerships with community organizations can be made to increase opportunities for underserved students and begin to close the achievement gap.

“California is home to the biggest immigrant communities in the nation,” said SEARAC Executive Director Dinh. “It’s also home to the biggest Southeast Asian community in the nation. By reporting disaggregated data, California can really show its leadership in being serious about understanding what equity looks like for diverse communities across the state. And if California is able to make a dent and shift equity in its communities, it can go a really long way — not just in the state, but as a national example.”

Kimberly Sellery is managing editor for California Schools.