The Data

The Data on South Asian American

students’ experiences in K-12 settings.

The following are selected data findings from Dr. Rice’s dissertation research on the K-12 experiences of South Asian Americans in U.S. schools. The results below are selected to illustrate the experiences of South Asian American students, especially as related to the impacts of low teacher cultural proficiency.

The Myth of the Model Minority

The model minority stereotype (also called the model minority myth) is a perception of Asian students as perfect: highly intelligent, capable, respectful, and hardworking (Li, 2005; Hirschman & Wong, 1986; Wong, 1980). Many teachers may tend to assume their Asian American students fit this description, including in Dr. Rice’s study. In fact, over three-quarters (77.7%) of participants explicitly reported their teachers seemed to believe the model minority stereotype, and seemed to assume that they were smarter than peers from other cultural groups (Chart displayed below).

Why does it matter if teachers believe the model minority myth?

The “model minority myth” is misguided and misleading, and is a false stereotype (Leong, Chao, & Hardin, 2000). Even if we ignore the implications of a teacher engaging in stereotyping about students, and ignore what belief in the stereotype says about the teachers’ general cultural proficiency or multicultural education readiness, the model minority myth is still harmful. The model minority myth hurts Asian American students, whether they are low-achieving or high-achieving, and creates divides between these students and others. It may also lead teachers to provide less support to their Asian American students, as they may believe the students need less support than they actually do.

Even if we argue that the model minority myth is a positive stereotype, we need only look at the impact this myth has on lower achieving students, whose needs may be overlooked because of low cultural proficiency.

Rahman and Paik’s (2017) study reports that South Asian Americans in the United States are diverse and varied. In particular, their work shows that occupational trends for South Asian American are bimodal, and while there are many South Asian Americans who may have financial and academic success, a great many South Asian Americans work in lower-wage jobs and have lower academic achievement. This further supports the importance of teacher cultural proficiency, since many South Asian Americans do not fit the model minority stereotype, or may come from families that do not (or are unable to) provide supports that teachers may assume they receive.

In the best case scenarios, the highest achieving students still experience greater pressure from teachers (who still do not understand them or may not bother to get to know the students as individuals). Further, they may still be less likely to receive additional supports teachers may provide other students, and succeed academically in spite of having overlooked needs.

Moreover, the model minority myth creates divides between Asian Americans members of other minority groups (Leong, Chao, & Hardin, 2000). This is consistent with the findings of Lee (2015): the model minority stereotype “promotes interracial tension between Asian Americans and other groups,” including other minority groups and White Americans (p. 2).

A belief in the model minority stereotype (as well as a tendency to overgeneralize about South Asian or Asian students) may result in a tendency to assume all students from these groups fit the model minority stereotype, and consequently, may not need general or specific support; this may lead to overlooking these students’ needs.

In fact, a majority (68.2%) of South Asian American participants in Dr. Rice’s study reported that teachers seemed to think they needed less help than their peers from other cultural or racial groups (see chart).

For the great many South Asian and other Asian American students who do not fit the stereotype, experience academic underachievement, or have special needs, the model minority myth can be invalid, inaccurate, and harmful, which may be particularly true if it results in receiving less support than they need.

For those who are high achieving, it can still results in a great deal of pressure, including pressure to fit into a particular stereotype, or can compound existing pressure they face from other sources. Moreover, the model minority stereotype creates divides between student populations.

Moreover, most South Asian Americans really may have needs that far exceed the support they receive. In a constructed response question, most (70.6%) participants indicated that their teachers could have better supported them or their academic needs (see chart).

Additionally, a majority (64.7%) of participants felt teachers seemed to believe they needed less help developing time management and organizational skills than peers from other cultural/racial groups (chart not displayed).

Specific Supports Students Needed

Specific supports participants identified: Individual help, review opportunities, ‘general’ academic supports.

Additionally, participants reported wanting supports (that might be best classified as general best practices) related to executive functioning: chunking of instructions and directional information, check-ins on student progress, reminders to write down assignments, support in developing organization/time management skills.

Student Connectedness

Findings also suggest South Asian Americans may not have felt very connected to school, and may not have had ideal K-12 experiences. This last point is significant, as it was supported by many constructed responses describing instances of microaggressions, insensitive remarks by teachers, and even racism and bullying from peers.

Data from this component of the study was qualitative in nature, and specific language from the study illustrating these experiences will be made available on this page on a future date.

Teacher Cultural Proficiency

Most (72.9%) South Asian American participants indicated that their K-12 teachers had low cultural proficiency, as measured through an item indicating teachers did not understand the students and their cultural identities or backgrounds (see chart). Moreover, most (81.2%) participants felt teachers knew little about them compared to students from other backgrounds (chart not displayed).

Is it possible that students’ perceptions of their teachers’ cultural competence misses the mark, and teachers did actually have higher levels of understanding of these students’ backgrounds? Certainly. But the perception of the students themselves carries a great deal if importance in context of student experience.

More Stereotyping

Most (63.5%) participants reported teachers made some kind of assumptions about them based on their backgrounds.

Additional findings

  • Over half (51.8%) of South Asian Americans reported feeling teachers tended to lump them in with other Asian American subgroups (data chart not displayed)
  • Low cultural proficiency was not restricted to schools or areas with a particular demographic breakdown (that is, predominantly White students, minority-majority schools, and schools with high populations of South Asian Americans all shared experiences of teachers with low cultural competence)
  • Researchers also find the experiences of South Asian Americans are varied
  • Offering resources to combat stereotypes may improve students’ experiences

What is the teachers’ side of the story?

Dr. Rice’s research also included a very small quantitative survey of teachers (the results are not very generalizable as l, n = 15), in which participants were asked to rate their own level of proficiency as related to South Asian American students. Here were the findings (see chart):

  • Almost half (47%) of participants reported they were culturally competent related to South Asian Americans
  • Only about a quarter (27%) reported they lacked cultural proficiency
  • Only about a quarter (27%) reported they were “neutral” (neither lacking proficiency, nor proficient)

Phrased differently, over half of teacher participants did not identify as culturally proficient related to supporting their South Asian American students. Even with a small study, this is a big percentage.

A large majority (87%) of teachers also reported that they believed that they could benefit from learning more about South Asian American students (chart not displayed).

Ultimately, there is these students' experiences.

About Dr. Rice

Dr. Punita Chhabra Rice

Dr. Punita Chhabra Rice is the founder and director of ISAASE. ISAASE is an outreach organization dedicated to improving South Asian American student experiences. Dr. Rice conducts research and presents findings on South Asian American experiences in K-12 contexts. Dr. Rice is also the founder of Punlearning, a blog about life, career, academia, motherhood, finding balance, style, technology, and learning & unlearning. You can connect with her on twitter at @PunitaRice.

Would you like to download this data?

You can download the this data as a PDF to share with colleagues and others here.
You can also visit the Google document for this data here.
You can also download a PDF of the poster Dr. Rice presented at Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s second annual Celebration of Research which provides an overview of selected findings here.

Survey results reported above are from Dr. Rice’s research, approved by and supported by the Johns Hopkins University’s IRB and School of Education. The research is on South Asian Americans’ K-12 experiences are based on a mixed-methods survey, consisting of quantitative and constructed response items, with n = 85 participants. 

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