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Beyond the “Model Minority” Myth: Understanding the Needs of Southeast Asian Students


The local boba shop across the street from my high school was the place to be. Every day, when the bell rang at 2:44 p.m., hordes of high schoolers made their way there. Usually people grabbed their drinks and left. Only a select few lingered and this group of cigarette-smoking teenagers intimidated anyone who entered the shop.

Because my older brother and cousin paved the way for me socially, I was welcomed by this exclusive group before I even started high school. As an eighth grader, I sat inside and did my homework while my brother hung out with his friends outside, simultaneously fulfilling his responsibility to babysit me. Every so often, a fight would break out between one person and another. Letting my curiosity get the better of me, I would look outside the window only to see my brother turn around and mouth the words, “Stay inside.”

This group became a part of my life as I started high school, sneaking me fast food during lunch or buying me boba after school. Despite their baggy clothing, swearing, tattoos, and piercings, these teens were good people. After my brother and cousin graduated from high school, my ties to the group weakened. I spent less time with the group at school and devoted more time to my studies and extracurricular activities. Eventually the group disbanded. Some members graduated from high school, but others were expelled, dropped out, or even got arrested. Despite the different paths we took in high school, we had a strong connection—their last names sounded like mine. We all were Vietnamese.

Being Vietnamese Americans means that our parents were refugees who fled the Vietnam War. Because our parents were uprooted from their lives in Vietnam, they were unprepared for the transition to life in the United States. This left our parents with limited English proficiency, socioeconomic challenges, and low educational attainment. Our parents often lacked the knowledge and experience to support us in education and faced linguistic and cultural barriers in connecting with school staff. Growing up in a low-income community meant that it was easy for me and other teens at the time to be influenced by those who would provide for us, which is why these kinship-like friendships of the boba shop formed. We leaned on each other for support, rolling our eyes at the white school administrators who lectured us instead of trying to understand the struggles we faced.

Limited English proficiency is among the educational challenges Southeast Asians face. According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the limited English proficiency rate in the United States overall is 8.7 percent, but it is 51.5 percent for the Vietnamese American community. In addition, 11.3 percent of families in the United States live below the poverty line. By contrast, 27.4 percent of Hmong Americans, 18.2 percent of Cambodian Americans, 13 percent of Vietnamese Americans, and 12.2 percent of Laotian Americans live below the poverty line.

However, the struggles that Vietnamese Americans and other Southeast Asian Americans face are not portrayed accurately. The “model minority” discourse paints a picture that all Asians, despite their complex backgrounds, are overachieving students. We are stereotyped as violin players whose parents spend thousands on SAT and ACT prep courses to prepare for higher education. But that image could not be further from my reality. This stereotype is perpetuated because the diversity and multitude of ethnic groups are masked by the way school systems aggregate student data.

To alleviate this issue, many steps have been taken to disaggregate data for the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. For example, during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) proposed an amendment that would have required school districts with more than 1,000 AAPI students to report statistics on student achievement for the major AAPI subgroups. Although the amendment ultimately failed in a 47–50 vote, and the reauthorized law does not require data disaggregation specifically by ethnic group, there is a provision in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that requires states to set a minimum number of students necessary to trigger the lawat the school, district, and state levels. This provision is referred to as “n-size.”

N-size influences how many students receive additional support if they demonstrate low performance. Ideally, states should set their n-size as low as possible to maximize the number of students eligible for additional support. Although this provision is not targeted directly toward the Southeast Asian community, providing additional support for students from low-income families and English learners (ELs) is a step in the right direction. For more information about n-size, see the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) fact sheet and its state-by-state chart of n-sizes in ESSA state plans.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) created the Asian American and Pacific Islander Data Disaggregation Initiative grant competition, which provides grants to state education agencies in collaboration with local education agencies to obtain and evaluate disaggregated data on EL AAPI subpopulations. ED awarded a total of $836,458 in grants to the state departments of education in Minnesota, Hawaii, and Washington to improve data collection and identify effective practices to close achievement gaps.

The State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction created a five-year plan to implement its grant. Washington hopes to accomplish three goals: (1) increase AAPI family engagement in schools, (2) increase AAPI student engagement in schools, and (3) close the achievement gaps in English/language arts and math for AAPI EL students. These goals are carried out by providing professional development opportunities for school staff members focused on culturally responsive communication, incorporating strategies for increased student attendance and engagement, and training school teams focused on using disaggregated student data to set performance goals for different sets of students. Washington began implementing its plan in 2016 and currently is assessing the state’s progress.

I wonder, if these resources and forums of support had been implemented while I was growing up, would the lives of my peers be any different? Perhaps more of them would have graduated from high school or gone to college. I only can be optimistic that these education reforms will address the unique needs that today’s Southeast Asian high school students face and foster better learning environments conducive to their success.

Sabrina Tran is an intern at All4Ed.