Asian American Students: Educational Needs Overshadowed by Stereotypes Mark Hoefnagel Writing 1010-002 Professor Carpenter April 23, 2001 Within our society, education is seen as the number one priority. Orestes Brownson commented that “every child is born with as good a natural right to the best education that community can furnish, as he is to a share of the common air of heaven or the common light of the sun” (Brownson, 1839, p. 277). Throughout the history of public education, schools have been used as a tool for correcting society’s woes and balancing economic opportunity.
Although this goal of education remains the same, the variables are always changing. Cultural and ethnic differences comprise the most troublesome problems relating to education. The belief that each person deserves a fair and equal education still exists, but in reality the school system in this nation falls short of providing a complete and universal education for its youth. Immigration has always been a significant contributor to the changing ethnic and cultural composition of the United States.
Asian Americans have more than a 150-year history of immigration to this country; about 90% have immigrated following the Immigration Act of 1965. The Asian American population in the United States represents members of 31 ethnic groups who speak 300 different languages and dialects (Olsen, 1997). The popular image of Asian American students is they are industrious, high achieving, and well adjusted; they are typically considered the model minority in America.
The disproportionate emphasis placed on the academic performance of Asian American students, due to the model minority stereotype, stands in the way of dealing with actual student needs, it jeopardizes their ethnic identity, and overshadows the importance of their individuality; we need to take action to establish a multicultural approach to determining and meeting the educational needs of Asian American students and to create an educational experience that will provide them with an equal and adequate education as a means to obtain a level of economic opportunity and social wellbeing equal to that of the majority population.
The first notable immigration from Asia into the United States began in 1848, by the Chinese. The Chinese initially arrived in the United States to fill the need for labor on sugar plantations and the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Later, the discovery of gold in California brought many immigrants in search of Gam Saan or Gold Mountain. Approximately one million people entered between the California gold rush of 1849 and the Immigration Act of 1924, an act that ended immigration from Asian countries (Takaki, 1989).
The lapse in immigration from Asia lasted more than forty years, but along with the civil rights movement during the 1960’s, there was a push for immigration reform; a new immigration act renewed the possibility of immigration from Asia. Between the years 1965 and 1985, a second wave of immigration from Asia brought approximately three and one-half million immigrants to the United States (Takaki, 1989). Currently among Asian Americans, two of three were born in foreign countries; Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian groups had the highest proportion of foreign births, whereas Japanese had the lowest proportion (Chiang, 2000).
More recently the United States has become an asylum for refugees frantically fleeing their homelands because of war or political unrest. Three-quarters of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong have entered the United States since 1975. If immigration into the United States continues at present rates, the Asian American population is projected to grow to thirty-four and one-half million by 2040 (Chiang, 2000).
The label of Asian American applies to many different subgroups of people who are vastly different from one another, in respect to their individual cultures; their reasons for which they immigrated; and their long history of immigration into the United States. In light of this diversity, one might think it would be absurd to treat them as a single group; however, they are invariably treated as a monolithic group. Based on SAT scores and the percentage of Asian Americans in higher education it is true that Asian Americans, when evaluated as single group, appear more successful in education than any other minority group (Lee, 1999).
These crude statistics and oversights have led to the creation of the term model minority, which is used in reference to their overall educational and social prosperity. Hidden and unaccounted for are the poor and poorly educated refugees who came in large numbers after the end of the Vietnam War. A study conducted in the late 1980’s revealed estimates that Southeast Asian refugees, such as the Hmong and the Cambodian, consistently settled in communities where learning English could be avoided and where welfare dependency became the norm.
Groups such as these deserve recognition, especially in issues concerning education, because the average Hmong family included 11. 9 children and the typical Cambodian family consisted of 7. 4 children (Orfield & Glass, 1994). By contemporary standards, these family sizes are extraordinary. Furthermore, the Hmong and Cambodians are the youngest Asian immigrants with a median age of thirteen and nineteen years old (Chiang, 2000). Inaccurate information and assumptions based on stereotypes of Asian American students has limited the development of educational programs that accurately address their individual needs.
Students’ poor writing skills and their inability to participate in class discussions frequently stand in the way of academic progress. In many cases, determined students spend many hours doing extra homework looking up words in the dictionary in an attempt to make sense of the days lesson taught to them in English. These strategies allow students to learn the curriculum, but seldom enable them to use English as a medium of academic expression (Olsen, 1997). Widespread weaknesses in English language skill persist among any Asian immigrant students, even years after their arrival in the United States.
There has been relatively little research on effective, appropriate models for language development and bilingual education for Asian American students. Asian languages have much less similarity to English than do Spanish or other European languages. Most Asian languages are tonal; the words are pronounced with different tones to express different meanings (Olsen, 1997). Although bilingual education may not be a feasible approach to providing an equal education to students with limited proficiency in English, providing classes that teach English as a second language is a must.
These classes help students acquire verbal and writing skills and learn strategies to enable them to complete the required tasks from their other subjects. Teachers, regardless of their own cultural backgrounds, must become knowledgeable concerning the qualities of the diverse Asian cultures and how the child’s home culture contributes to learning and development. For instance, teachers of young Hmong and Laotian students have recently noticed that memory skills, motor skills, and concentration skills have become startlingly low.
Ten years ago these children appeared very advanced when compared to other students in these skills. It is now recognized that parents taught these skills through traditional means, such as participation in oral rituals, embroidery, and silver work; but because the family patterns have been destroyed by the many years spent in refugee camps and the process of dislocation and relocation in the United States these practices have stopped (Olsen, 1997, p. 21).
Educators must find ways to tap into the traditional wisdom of communities and to offer immigrant parents more access to the American ways of teaching children to bridge the gap from their cultural tradition. Teachers often fail to realize how valuable a source of information their students, their parents, and the community can be. Educators who have a deeper understanding of the practices and beliefs of Asian families and communities are better able to support students and enable them to benefit from the knowledge, skills, and insight presented in the classroom.
Just as there is little institutional response to cultural issues in schools, there is little understanding of the potential effects of gender role identity on Asian American girls. Asian American girls may face especially hard adolescent years if the gender role expectations of their home culture clash dramatically with those of their adopted community. For example, the Hmong place cultural value on girls marrying and bearing children during their early teen years.
In the United States, Hmong girls continue to marry and have children when they are as young as thirteen to fifteen years of age (Olsen, 1997, p. 25). Because few teachers or counselors have training adequate to understand the values and cultural practices among Asian ethnic groups, they cannot provide support and counseling for girls facing such cultural conflict nor can they help nurture their cultural identities, which is an intrinsic attribute of a successful student.
On the subject of cultural identity, Steven Lee (1999), said, “There is no doubt that inclusion of Asian and Asian American experiences, as well as recognition of the importance of their presence in the schools will empower Asian American students’ participation in the learning process” (p. 12). Lee points out that students who had greater interest in their cultural identity had higher academic achievement than their counterparts because of their increased motivation for diversified learning experience and interest (1999, p. 12). Hence, rather that emulating their peers to conform to the norm of the dominant culture, these students were interested in empowering themselves by developing awareness and pride in their heritage while undergoing personal experiences in the mainstream culture” (Lee, 1999, p. 13). The diversity among Asian Americans is limitless, it must be recognized that their educational needs can only be met when each student is viewed as an individual with a unique culture and needs. The importance of the influence of multiple cultures on society is finally being realized and appreciated.
The popular metaphor depicting the United States as a melting pot is losing favor and being replaced by an attitude much like Chrysler’s ad campaign that asks us to “think different. ” The people of America need to embrace the various cultures of each member contacted and allow the experiences to be educational and to enrich their lives. Never should the focus of education be lost; learning takes place everywhere, but it is critical that within the school system students receive an uncompromised education by adapting to a student’s independent needs. References Brownson, O. (1839).
Decentralization: Alternative to bureaucracy?. In M. B. Katz (Ed. ) School reform: Past and present (pp. 277-287). Boston: Brown. Chiang, L. H. (2000). Teaching Asian American students. The Teacher Educator. Retrieved March 28, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www. wilsonweb2. hwwilson. com Lee, S. K. (1999, January). The relationship between cultural identity and academic achievement of Asian American students. Paper presented at the Annual International Bilingual / Multicultural Education Conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education, Denver, CO.
Olsen, L. (1997). An invisible crisis: The educational needs of Asian Pacific American youth. Asian Americans / Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Retrieved April 7, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www. edrs. com Orfield, G. & Glass, D. (1994). Asian students and multiethnic desegregation. A publication of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation. Retrieved April 7, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www. edrs. com Takaki, R. (1989). Strangers from a different shore: A history of Asian Americans. Boston: Brown.