A stereotype plagues the Asian demographic: They’re good, smart kids. And they don’t need much attention in school because they do so well.
America’s wholesale perception of the Asian demographic as one with good ethics, studious appetites, and a quiet persistence began in 1966 with an article by William Petersen in The New York Times Magazine. In it, he described the values inherent in Japanese culture that made them a "model minority" for U.S. society, theorizing that their good qualities stemmed from cultural values.
All of a sudden, Asians were the group to compare other minorities to, becoming a standard of achievement for anyone who was not white.
Some people say that this perception is a problem. Considering that 17.3 million Asians live in the U.S., the demographic is not homogenous by any means, although nearly 50 percent of Asians over 25 hold a bachelor's degree, compared with 28 percent of all Americans.
Presenting Asian cultural values as the answer for educational success effectively trivializes bigger issues, especially among students. The dangerous assumption that the whole speaks for one has appeared to cause an institutional oversight of the individual student who often needs more help than the system can provide.
Because of this assumption, the community gets excluded from broader minority-education discussions, says Robert Teranishi, an associate professor at New York University and the principal investigator for the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, which conducted a 2008 report on the myth.
"It conceals a reality that’s seldom acknowledged. To render a population invisible is really a problem. You really strip them of a voice in terms of broader conversations in our nation," Teranishi said.
The Asian Pacific American demographic includes 48 distinct ethnic groups from various regions, including East Asians—with which mainstream society often associates—as well as South Asians, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and more.
For Tom Hayashi, the executive director for OCA National, an Asian Pacific American advocacy group, one of the largest problems is the lack of contextual analysis of the demographic data, leading to generalizations that ignore the larger individual problems at hand.
"We’ve got to get beyond the numbers," Hayashi said. "I think that we’re going to have to do a much better job as a community to really advocate for how data is contextualized … and also to really challenge the policymakers to not just rely on the numbers to make their decisions.”
The accepted argument is that disaggregating the data paints a more realistic picture of the distinct ethnic groups within the Asian-American/Pacific Islander label. Many don’t perform as well as others, yet they remain ignored.
Because the population is so often overlooked, comprehensive analysis looking at the data is rare. Valerie Ooka Pang, a professor at San Diego State University, coauthored a study released earlier this year that dissected the test score data of more than a million California white and Asian seventh-graders. It was one of the first of its kind.
What she found was that the test scores varied widely based on the child’s country of origin, proving a fundamental need to address individual student needs.
"Yes, they can speak English; yes, they can carry on a conversation, but they do not have the higher-level, abstract, contextual knowledge that they need in academic studies," Pang said.
Some groups, particularly the Southeast Asians, also struggle with socio-economic barriers long associated with other racial and ethnic groups.
Consider Cambodians. In 2010, more than 41 percent of Cambodians lacked a high school diploma, according to census estimates. Similarly, more than 40 percent of Laotians living in the U.S. lacked high school degrees. The Vietnamese also had high levels of low educational attainment—more than 32 percent lacked diplomas.
Indonesians, Japanese, and Taiwanese had some of the lowest shares of people who lacked diplomas—about 8 percent for Indonesians, 6 percent for Japanese, and 5 percent for Taiwanese.
Asians as a whole appear to perform much better: Less than 15 percent lacked a high school diploma.
Like Asians, the numbers for both blacks and Hispanics fluctuate when drilling down by ethnic origin. More than 18 percent of blacks did not have a high school diploma. Hispanics and Latinos as a whole averaged about 38 percent without a diploma.
Black students are largely seen as a group that struggles with lower levels of academic achievement. Yet, less than 5 percent of people from Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, and South Africa lacked a high school diploma in 2010, according to figures from the 2010 American Community Survey.
The numbers also vary widely across the Hispanic and Latino populations: nearly 61 percent without a diploma for Mexicans, compared with about 7 percent for Venezuelans.
About 12 percent of whites did not have a high school degree, by comparison.
Despite such large discrepancies among different ethnic groups, Asians are still widely seen as high-achieving students who are a shoo-in for Ivy League schools. Because of this, issues such as affirmative action—for which Asians are often left out because they aren’t seen as a minority in education—continue to be a sore subject.
Minorities in higher education scored a big win in 1965 when the federal government established the Higher Education Act, which gave federal funding to minority-serving institutions. But institutions with a large population of Asians weren’t included. Asian-serving institutions weren’t federally recognized—or eligible for funding—until 2007.
To be fair, the federal government has been noticing. The AANAPISI federal program provides funding specifically to serve low-income ethnic groups in this population.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said that disaggregation for this group is vital, and the Education Department earlier this month put out a request for educational institutions to share information about how they separate the demographic data.
But it’s still a long way to go to fix mainstream society’s perception of the demographic, and also to fully realize the burden that the nearly 50-year-old label has imposed on all minorities—not just Asians.
Just as Asians are stereotyped as math whizzes and quiet kids, blacks and Hispanic are often typecast as students who struggle in school. But diving deeper into the data proves all of these stereotypes wrong. Some groups of Asians tend to do better in school, and so do groups within the black and Hispanic populations. Likewise, just as some black and Hispanic students struggle in school, so do Asians.
As minority groups continue to grow at a faster rate, understanding the root of the cause for the disparity between the numbers and the institutional implications of them becomes more important.
“Educators need to be educated about who their students are and how that’s changing and how this is kind of the future. These are the 21st-century students, and it’s not going to change back,” Teranishi said.
Want to stay ahead of the curve? Sign up for National Journal’s AM & PM Must Reads. News and analysis to ensure you don’t miss a thing.