Ed Reform Has an Asian Problem

When it comes to education reform, Asians don’t exist. Nobody talks about them. Not policymakers, national advocacy groups or funders. For decades, the education world has stereotyped Asians as a “model minority” and left them out of the education dialogue. For most ed. reformers, Asians aren’t even an afterthought.

With the rapid expansion of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) population, Ed Reform can’t afford to ignore Asians anymore. Since 2010, the growth rate of APIs has exceeded that of Latinos. Nationally, there are over 20 million APIs. In some states, the API population has grown larger than other ethnic groups, especially in public schools. For example, in California there are twice as many API students (12%) as African-Americans (6%). In some prominent school districts such as San Francisco, APIs are the “majority” minority with 40% of the student population, larger than the Latinos (30%), Whites (14%) and African-Americans (9%).

Much of this growth is the result of recent immigration. While immigrant communities often see education as the source of social mobility, in many API communities, education holds additional cultural and religious significance. Education leaders across the reform spectrum should be appealing to this natural interest and building API support for the reforms necessary to improve public schools. They can begin by dumping old stereotypes and embracing the diversity of the Asian community.

Dump the Stereotypes

Asian does not describe a people, race or appearance. It is a continent with dozens of nations and more than two-thirds of the world’s population. Adding every island in the Pacific increases that complexity.

In a nation where you are often identified by your skin tone, you can’t label APIs. Depending on their ethnicity, Asians can be whiter than white mid-westerners, blacker than southern African-Americans and browner than border state Latinos. You can see this at a baseball game in Los Angeles or a subway train in Oakland where Samoan, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Filipino and a dozen other “hyphen Americans” represent the community’s broad diversity.

In education, Asians are often written off as high achievers with “Tiger” parents who care more about academics than their children’s emotional well-being. But when you disaggregate student outcome data by API ethnicity, a more complex picture emerges. Some groups perform at higher levels than white students. Other groups have wide achievement gaps and low college success rates. This variation is not always correlated with poverty or English Learner status. Some high-poverty API groups exhibit higher academic performance than far more advantaged white students.

This complexity had largely been hidden inside the larger API category. It is rarely discussed by ed. reformers and even more rarely researched or responded to, even in western states with huge API communities. Reform activists should explore this complexity and learn more about the factors that produce this variation in results.

Be Inclusive

Reformers should also be more inclusive in their messaging, especially when talking about people of color. APIs come in a lot of colors. Yet most of the Ed Reform initiatives and organizations targeted at students of color, teachers of color and leaders of color either explicitly or implicitly exclude APIs.

Strangely, many of these same initiatives are cited as examples of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) movement in education reform. For example, the latest “groundbreaking” report on the state of DEI in the nonprofit education community barely mentioned APIs. Panels on race at ed. reform conferences almost never include an Asian voice or face.

The problem isn’t just exclusion. It’s the fake inclusion. For many ed. reform activists, Asians are “of color” when it’s beneficial – for example when counting the total number of students of color – and not when it isn’t, when developing programs or initiatives. It’s difficult to understand how education programs intended to promote diversity, equity and inclusion could purposely exclude APIs, especially when APIs are so poorly represented in the teaching ranks and among education leaders.

Find the Issues That Matter

Including the API community must mean more than just introducing them to the latest reform initiative. Instead of assuming interest, reformers need to reach out to different API communities to find out what they think about academic standards, testing, charter schools, personalized learning, etc. As the community expands in size and influence, the answers to these questions should matter, even when they contradict conventional wisdom.

The lawsuit brought by Asian students against Harvard for its admission practices provides an interesting example of this. On the left and right of ed. reform, the suit has been framed as an attack on affirmative action. But a recent article in the New Yorker explains how the suit actually takes aim at the advantages enjoyed by white students in Ivy League admissions. Instead of exploring the full complexity of this issue, reformers chose to wedge it inside a familiar racial divide.

Cut the Deference

My final piece of advice is aimed at API leaders. Our nation’s racial dialogue places APIs, no matter what their history, in an uncomfortable no man’s land between the white community and other communities of color. APIs don’t benefit from old white boys’ and girls’ networks. But they aren’t perceived by some leaders as “oppressed enough” to get fully included in the people of color agenda. Asian leaders often defer to other groups to lead the education reform and racial dialogue.

Nothing is more cliched and stereotypical than API deference. Asian leaders shouldn’t wait to be asked. This does not mean engaging in the “oppression Olympics” with other groups. As a younger community, APIs do not have the same history of oppression as other groups. That does not, however, make the education needs of API communities, parents and students any less important or relevant. Many API groups such as Chinese- and Japanese-Americans have painful histories in our country and many APIs have individually experienced racism and exclusion. But this conversation, where different groups compare historical and current insults to identify who has been the most oppressed, generates animosity instead of understanding.

Instead of deferring to other groups, API leaders should take a leadership role in ed. reform. They should challenge those education leaders who exclude and ignore them and find true partners and allies. They should forge a reform agenda that fully encompasses our nation’s growing diversity, knowing that by doing so, they will better equip our children to succeed in a similarly diverse world.

— Arun Ramanathan

Dr. Arun Ramanathan leads Pivot Learning, the largest nonprofit provider of technical assistance in the areas of leadership development, teaching and learning and education finance to school districts in California.

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