Researcher Debunks "Myth" that Asians Are, by Nature, More Academically Successful than Other Minorities

Says "model minority" stereotype is destructive for all minority students who are failing

Release Date: December 4, 2002

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Guofang Li wants to dispell the stereotype of Asian students as being better equipped to succeed academically.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Guofang Li, Ph.D., is a Chinese native, academic researcher and assistant professor in the University at Buffalo Graduate School of Education.

At first glance, she seems the very model of the stereotypical Asian immigrant -- whom she describes as "intelligent, industrious, enduring, obedient, highly successful and joyfully initiated into North American life and English literacy."

In reality, Li is out to dispel that stereotype and in study after study she has debunked the popular idea that Asian students -- Chinese students, in particular -- are, by nature, better equipped to succeed academically than other minority groups in the U.S. and Canada.

"The stereotype of Asian students as model minorities has become a destructive myth for children of all backgrounds whom the school systems are failing, and they are failing many of them," says Li, the author of "East is East and West is West?" a study of home literacy, culture and schooling.

"Contemporary public perceptions of Chinese and other Asian students are based on reports of their high test scores and high grades when compared to minority groups like black and Latino students in the U.S. and aboriginal groups in Canada," says Li, "and so these students are constructed as 'academic nerds,' 'high-achievers' and the like."

She says this stereotype is reinforced by research literature that reports only Asian success stories, and is destructive for those children whom the schools are failing.

Although many Asian students do quite well in school and on standardized tests, Li maintains their success often reflects the additional expensive private schooling provided by upper- and middle-class parents on evenings and weekends.

The United States and Canada have witnessed large influx of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Mainland China over the past few years, Li says, and their children are becoming a significant segment of the North American school population.

Only about 30 percent of Chinese Americans have attained middle-class status, however. Li says most of the Chinese immigrants remain members of the working or lower class, manual laborers with little English proficiency and limited education.

Their children face the same serious barriers to academic achievement faced by many other immigrants -- low literacy rates in English and often in their native language, poverty, inadequate housing, broken homes, absent parents, poor schools, drugs, alcohol and despair. And like other immigrants, says Li, they and their children often fail in school and suffer the social and economic consequences.

"The presentation of Asians as a 'model minority,'" says Li, " reinforces the 'blame the victim' approach to minority students' failure. It promotes the 'invisibility' of troubled students and disguises the social realities of many children who are not academically successful."

"These images of Chinese children in particular come into play when they fail in school," she says. "Because of the assumption that these students 'should' do well academically, failure may be attributed to deficiencies in the family or neglect by parents, rather than problems with the school.

The persistence of these ideas, says Li, prevents us from unraveling the social realities of those who face problems in the educational system. Furthermore, she says, they authorize a flat denial of racism and structures of social dominance, and silence those who are not economically successful.

"Stereotypes are the result of a profound lack of knowledge about a particular group," Li notes, "and this lack of knowledge must be taken into account when we turn our attention to those who live in the shadow of other children's success."

In her several published qualitative studies of Chinese, Philippine and other Asian school children and their families in the U.S. and Canada, Li has consistently found that it is not ancestry that determines how well students do in school, but, as is the case for most children, the economic class and social aspirations of their parents.

"There is," she says, "a complex interrelationship between literacy in the home, cultural expectations and practices, and the politics of schooling.

"Although learning and teaching styles in many Asian nations are quite different than those practiced in North America," Li says, "I have found that the 'cultural mismatch' theory alone cannot explain why so many Asian children are failing in school."

She says that factors such as the family's ability and skill in activating cultural resources for academic success, and the school's political agenda also play an important role in shaping the educational success of Asian children.

Asians, who traditionally defer to authority and hesitate to put themselves forward because it is considered rude, may find it very difficult to speak up to teachers and school administrators.

Those who do complain often say that math programs in American and Canadian schools are insufficient and that their teaching methods are too child-centered to be effective, says Li.

Such parents, Li says, are not just literate, but well-educated and consider academic success a ticket to their children's future economic and social well being. They will go to extraordinary lengths to insure that end.

"In addition to completing a full week of public-school classes, their children are privately tutored for several hours each night in math and English. They also are likely to attend a highly structured 'Chinese School' on weekends. There, traditional values are emphasized and content material is presented by lecture and rote learning in a teacher-centered classroom."

"Tutoring and special schools cost money and involve considerable parental involvement," she says, noting that such time, money and effort seldom are available to the "downtown Chinese" -- the poor, ill-educated or non-English speaking families that make up the majority of Chinese immigrants.

Even middle-class Chinese children face problems in school, however, concludes Li in "Tensions, Dissensions and Literary Practices" (2002), her year-long study of European and Canadian teachers' interactions with and perceptions of Chinese Canadian students and their families.

Because they value traditional ways of schooling, upper- and middle-class Asian parents often challenge the status quo of mainstream schooling and the teachers who provide it, according to Li. Such cultural clashes, she says, indicate the power imbalance between the teacher/school and the immigrant parents.

"When school becomes a 'site of struggle' between teachers and parents, immigrant children of all social classes may be placed in a dangerous position of school failure and discontinuity between home and school," says Li.

"Because of the value placed on compliance, humility and deference to authority in many Asian cultures, poor children may never be disruptive or 'act out' their frustration. Without assistance, however, many of them fail quietly, shamed by the popular assumption that because they are Asians, they naturally will do well in school."

"Despite the popular rhetoric, academic accomplishment is not easier for Asian children, particularly those who live in ghettoized, relatively poor 'Chinatowns' like those in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other large American cities.

"Like many other minority children," she says, "they often fall through the cracks in overburdened and underfunded public school systems."

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