Understanding the Educational Achievements of ""Model Minorities

Abigail Bucuvalas
December 1, 2003

Q: What are some of the factors that have led to the view that Asian Americans constitute a model minority? Is there a degree of truth behind this view? What does this conception mean for Chinese Americans in particular?

A: The term "model minority," in the context of Asian Americans, was first coined in the mid-1960s. Three key events in the historical context are important to consider. The first occurred in the post-WWII period, when the mainstream labor market started to open up to Asian Americans—mainly the descendants of Japanese and Chinese migrants—for the first time. Before that time, even highly educated Asian Americans—and there were not that many due to structural barriers they faced in the U.S.—found themselves unable to convert their credentials in the mainstream labor market. So for the first time since the late 19th century, Asian Americans in large numbers were allowed to move into more integrated settings, educationally, professionally, and residentially.

The second was the 1965 Immigration Act, which, generally speaking, allowed for a resumption of large-scale immigration to the U.S. A new stream of Asian immigrants, who already had considerable educational credentials, were slotted for professional jobs, and settled in high-income suburban areas. In other words, you begin to see enough mobile Asian immigrants to reinforce and, indeed, even enhance the claims of the model minority.

Research with immigrant and native-born minority groups consistently show that regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, parents want their children to do well in school, and children expect to go on to higher education. The key is how those aspirations do or do not get actualized.

The third key event was the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The very term model minority suggests that Asians are a racial minority group whose success can serve as an exemplar for other groups, notably, blacks and Latinos, that are not doing as well in the aggregate and having a much harder time entering the ranks of higher education. According to the model minority image, this happens because Asians have the kind of cultural resources that allow for success, whereas other groups lack these resources.

With regard to the truth and untruth of this view, clearly, there are some Asian Americans doing well. What is obscured, however, is that there are a number of Asian Americans not doing so well on typical indicators: income, poverty, occupation, educational attainment. This is especially the case for southeast Asians, who have arrived as refugees, and this is true even among those groups commonly thought of as uniformly doing well.

Any comparison of Asian Americans to other minority groups yields a much more complex picture than the one offered in the model minority image. The evidence does not support the idea that other minority groups do not have the cultural resources to succeed. In fact, structural factors—how groups are incorporated economically, residentially, and educationally—have considerable bearing on how well children do. And there is considerable variation in how different groups are incorporated, which we need to keep in mind when thinking along comparative lines. Research with immigrant and native-born minority groups consistently show that regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality, parents want their children to do well in school, and children expect to go on to higher education. The key is how those aspirations do or do not get actualized. And the answer is more complex than culture alone. It is about the schools children get to attend (and issues of tracking, teacher/peer dynamics, information, financial aid for college), racial and class barriers, and a host of other factors.

Q: What are the underlying complications of evaluating the socioeconomic classes of Chinese immigrants and their children? Do such complications influence the emphasis placed on educational achievement in many Chinese-American homes?

A: Evaluating socioeconomic class is a complex task to begin with, and immigration makes it even more complex. With immigrants in general, we need to keep in mind what their socioeconomic class was back in the homeland. Many are highly educated professionals who, because of language or other factors, cannot make use of their credentials in the U.S. As a result, they experience downward mobility.

Another complication is access to networks. We know that even Chinese immigrants with low levels of formal education and working-class jobs often can draw on ethnic networks to learn about the K-12 educational system in the U.S. What is interesting about these networks is that they draw Chinese of varying lengths of residence in the U.S., from different socio-economic backgrounds, and from a variety of neighborhoods. Knowledge is shared across class lines because of the particulars of Chinese immigration, as it has unfolded over time.

Q: Are there different educational achievement strategies employed by the Chinese-American parents living in the middle-class suburbs versus those living in more urban areas? How do these differences affect the experiences of their children?

A: Chinese-American parents living in the middle-class suburbs can draw on all the advantages that suburbs offer any parent (e.g., access to high-performing, safe schools). They can also afford to supplement their children’s schooling with enrichment programs like music lessons, language classes, and summer school.

Those living in more urban areas, who have lower levels of formal schooling and fall into a lower socioeconomic bracket, often draw on their networks to learn about public schools. They can also draw on the privately run academic preparatory schools or “cram schools” that exist in the Chinese immigrant communities. However, it is not a uniform experience. Some urban parents, for example, can learn enough to enroll their children in a magnet junior high school. But the parents cannot do much to help their children navigate that magnet school or complete the schoolwork. (This is not surprising given that they do not have much formal education themselves, work labor-intensive jobs, and have little English-language facility.) Another important point to mention is that these academic preparatory schools charge tuitions that can run a few thousand dollars a year that not all parents can afford.

Q: How do 1.5- and second-generation Chinese Americans think about the importance of education? Do their attitudes differ significantly from the attitudes of third-generation Chinese Americans?

A: Second-generation immigrants (American-born children of immigrants) and 1.5-generation immigrants (those who are foreign-born but arrived at an early enough age to be educated and socialized in the United States) fare better educationally than third-generation immigrants. It is believed that both groups benefit from their parents’ immigrant optimism about opportunities in the United States, and they have the English language facility. The immigrant drive may begin to decline among third-generation Chinese Americans, which is not surprising, since they are the children of American-born parents.