The myth that all Asians excel academically has created a data gap that excludes several Southeast Asian communities, such as the Hmong and Laotian. Many do not fit the stereotype of an Asian “model minority” and advocates say that without the data to prove they exist, there is no way to address the low-performance problems that persist for students in these communities.

New America Media, News Feature, Carolyn Goossen, Posted: Feb 20, 2007


FRESNO – Experience has taught MaiKa Yang, 25, that in order to get the funding to start programs for young Hmong women in her Fresno community, it’s not enough that she’s identified the problem and possible solutions. She needs to be able to prove it. That’s where she hits a wall.

“We don’t know the number of Hmong women who are going to college, obtaining degrees, dropping out of high school, or who are getting pregnant, even in Fresno, which has 30,000 Hmong,” says Yang. “Without this data, it’s very difficult for me or others to get support and funding for projects to help the younger community who we know are struggling.”

There is no data on Hmong young people in California to corroborate what Yang knows is true: that most Hmong teens either drop out of high school or don’t have the resources to go to college right out of high school.

Yang was herself one of the very few in her community to attend a four-year college straight out of high school. She’s returned to Fresno with the goal of helping other young Hmong women pursue their dreams by founding a support group for them. She hopes to develop a program that can offer tutoring, mentoring, and even financial support to both young women and men that would help them graduate from high school and go to college. But she needs the statistics to get the funding.

The only recent data available for smaller Asian groups like the Hmong is collected occasionally at the very local level by non-profit groups that lack the resources to do a thorough collection. Data on their educational attainment is almost non-existent. The U.S. Census does collect data about these groups, but only once every ten years. Very little can be gleaned from the data about the educational attainment of young people in these communities. The data does confirm one thing that Yang already knows: as of the 2000 Census, 66 percent of the adult Hmong community in the United States had less than a high school education.

Experts admit that lumping the Hmong into the “Asian” group continues to hide serious gaps in achievement and opportunity, and yet this happens routinely in the education world. “They get put into the low achieving track in schools, are disproportionately placed in English Learner programs, and many are dropping out altogether,” says UCLA Sociology Professor Min Zhou.

The reasons Hmong students are struggling while other Asian students appear to excel are multifold, says Khammany Mathavongsy, California projects director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. “The immigration experience of Southeast Asians is so different from other Asian communities. We came as refugees. We were uprooted from our own countries because of conflict, and we came with no resources. A lot of our people are illiterate in our own languages because they come from a peasant background. This makes us unique.”

Mathavongsy emphasizes that Southeast Asians have only been here for 30 years, compared to the Chinese and Japanese who have longer histories of immigration to the United States. And unlike the Vietnamese community, the Hmong, Laotians and Cambodians lack affluent members who put resources towards the communities’ economic development. The poverty rates among these groups is consequently very high — three times that of the national average.

Yet the perception of Asian high achievement is so pervasive that it’s even difficult for Professor Zhou to obtain funding so that she can further examine these perceived gaps. In fact, she faces great skepticism when applying for academic research grants to examine anything related to Asian communities. “If I develop a research proposal that just focuses on Asian Americans, then I won’t get funding. So I must always include Latinos,” she says. “This is because Asian Americans are a small group and, more importantly, they are not perceived as a ‘problem’ group.”

A bill that would require key government sectors to include those Asian communities currently labeled “other Asian” in data collection was re-introduced in the state assembly on Friday Feb. 9 by Assemblymember Ted Lieu. Currently, state agencies are required to collect data for 11 Asian ethnic groups (including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans). If the bill passes, it will be the first time that Hmong, Tongan, Thai, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Malaysian, Indonesian, Taiwanese, and Fijian communities are counted for state data collection.

While there has been no official opposition to the new bill thus far, some education advocates are wary of spending resources on the statistically small Asian subgroups. “Southeast Asian students are still doing better than black and Latino students, who make up a much larger group,” says one school reform advocate who asked to remain anonymous. “Those are the kids we need to focus more attention and resources on.”

Yet without better data, bill proponents say, the full story of how California’s diverse communities are faring when it comes to education cannot be told. “This bill is key to us,” says Mathavongsy. “Not only will it help us get more funding for local programs and help us design more effective intervention programs for youth, but it will expose how schools have long neglected our young people.”

Assemblymember Lieu sees this bill as an important step towards debunking the model minority myth, which assumes that all Asian students are armed with cultural (or even genetic) tools that enable them to be successful in school and in the workforce. Indeed, when clumped together into one homogenous group, “Asians” appear to be excelling academically in every area. They match or even outperform white students on many markers of academic achievement, including SAT scores and the high school exit exam. “Yet if you dig deeper, it’s clear that not everyone is doing well,” says Lieu.

Yang is hopeful that if implemented, this bill will help support her work in Fresno’s Hmong community in the long term. “Right now we only know about the families and young people we work with directly. There are so many more people out there who we want to help,” she says.


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