Academic journal article The Future of Children

Southeast Asian American Children: Not the "Model Minority"

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Southeast Asian American Children: Not the "Model Minority"

Article excerpt

Although an impressive number of Americans whose ancestors are from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam ("Southeast Asian Americans") have achieved tremendous success in education, (1) a disproportionate number have found it difficult to succeed academically. (2) Yet their difficulties are largely invisible to policymakers, who tend to look only to the aggregate data on Asian Americans--data that suggest that, as one large undifferentiated group, Asian Americans are doing quite well. (3) They are considered to be doing so well, in fact, that they are called the "model minority." For example, in 2000, 25.2% of Asian Americans aged 25 and over held bachelor's degrees or higher, compared with 15.5% of Americans overall. (4,5) In contrast, among the various Southeast Asian American groups, the percentage with bachelor's degrees ranged from 5.9% to 14.8%--proportions that more closely resemble those of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, than those of Asian Americans in aggregate. (See Figure 1.)

Significant numbers of Southeast Asian Americans now live in the United States. According to the 2000 Census, 1,814,301 people in the United States reported that their heritage was Southeast Asian: 206,052 from Cambodia, 384,513 from Laos (including 186,310 Hmong), and 1,223,736 from Vietnam. Southeast Asian Americans accounted for approximately 15.2% of those reported to have an Asian/Pacific Islander heritage, and 6.4% of the total U.S. population overall. (6) Given the profound contributions of Southeast Asian Americans to U.S. history, their present community development efforts, and most importantly, their current indications of need, it is essential that decision-makers focus added attention on the education of this particular group of Asian Americans.

Most Southeast Asian Americans arrived in the United States as refugees after 1975, or are the children of refugees. Parents in these communities endured tremendous hardship for the sake of their children, and for the most part, they promote their sons' and daughters' success in school to the full extent of their ability. Yet nearly three decades after the beginning of their refugee flight from Southeast Asia to the United States, many of their children continue to struggle with formal education due to a variety of factors including limited English language skills; discrimination; systematic miscommunication between students, parents, and teachers; and widespread feelings of alienation from mainstream schools. With small infusions of external support to help overcome these barriers, it is likely that the enthusiasm and commitment of Southeast Asian American parents and their children could produce great academic success within a short period of time.

Limited English Skills

According to the 1990 Census, a high percentage of Southeast Asian Americans had severe problems with the English language. Figures from the 2000 Census show improvements in this area, but it is clear that a high percentage of Southeast Asian Americans remain "limited English proficient" (LEP). (See Figure 2.) These difficulties endure, in part, because many community members arrived in this country unable to read and write in their native languages, and many suffer from trauma-related illnesses. Also, many people lack the time and energy to participate in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes as a result of their long work hours.

Even Southeast Asian American children who were born in this country often have difficulty with the English language when they first arrive at school. For example, in 1998, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported that in 1998, 7,706 Khmer (from Cambodia) and 5,712 Vietnamese students did not speak English as their primary language. (7) In 2000, California public schools reported having 93,908 LEP students who primarily spoke the Southeast Asian languages of Hmong, Khmer, Lao, Mien, and Vietnamese in their homes, 6. …

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