In early June, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his intent to eliminate the Specialized High School Admission Test as the sole criterion for admission to the city’s elite public schools – a move expected to negatively impact Asian Americans, who received more than 50 percent of the nearly 5,000 available seats at the district’s eight magnet schools for academic year 2018-19.
Around the same time, Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), the group challenging Harvard University’s admission process in court, released an analysis citing that Asian Americans were rated lower than any other race on personal traits such as “positive personality,” “likability” and “kindness,” which significantly diminished their chances of admission.
Asian Americans are an anomaly demographically. Unlike European Americans or African Americans, they are not a largely homogeneous racial or ethnic group, and unlike Hispanics, they are not bonded by a common language or religion.
In fact, Asian American is a “catchall” term for people from countries as diverse as Pakistan and Japan — a group of nations that together account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s population.
What Asian Americans do have in common is a set of values and philosophy forged by a shared history and the immigrant experience. Therefore, it is not possible to understand the Asian American psyche without having a nuanced understanding of these common ties.
However, as the report by SFFA suggests, even in higher education circles where diversity is mantra, this understanding is scarce. Asian American students are often dehumanized in the admissions process by being viewed as robotic or overly ambitious. This may explain why so many Asian American students pursue STEM careers, such as medicine, engineering and computer programming, which are arguably more “objective” and therefore more meritocratic compared with fields such as the humanities and social sciences.
But the representation problem also has a detrimental impact on public education, since colleges and universities train teachers. Asian teachers comprise only 2 percent of the teacher labor force although nearly 6 percent of public school students identify as Asian. In Pennsylvania, the number is even lower given that all teachers of color, a term that includes Asian Americans, comprise only 4 percent of teachers in the commonwealth.
The numbers are no more encouraging in K-12 educational administration. According to the American Association of School Administrators, in its 2016 survey of member compensation, there were only an astonishing two Asian superintendents among the 1,392 surveyed – far fewer than the number of black (29), Hispanic (32) and even American Indian (15) administrators.
My own experience as a teacher illustrates some of the obstacles that Asian American educators encounter when entering the education profession, particularly the field of urban education.
I began my teaching career at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD), a predominantly African American and Hispanic Title I school in Center City. My insistence on values grounded in my Indian upbringing, such as discipline, obedience and persistence, were often panned by school administrators as “overly demanding” and “unrealistic.” In opting for their version of a more student-centered approach, these administrators ignored research that highlighted the importance of structure, order and grit in a student’s academic and personal development. Asian American student enrollment at CHAD declined by two-thirds in five years to just 1 percent in 2017-18. Not surprisingly, the School Reform Commission voted this past June not to renew the school’s charter citing poor academic and discipline standards in its report.
Unfortunately, without a critical mass of Asian American educators in public education, it is all too easy for administrators and policymakers to conveniently ignore our values and experiences when attempting educational reform.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Richard Carranza, who stated that “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admission to these [elite magnet] schools.”
Such a comment does a disservice to the Asian American community by ignoring not only the racial and ethnic diversity of this group, but also dismisses the fact that Asian Americans in New York City have the highest poverty rates in the city, exceeding both African Americans and Hispanics.
Regrettably, without a louder and more concerted voice from Asian American teachers, it will be easy for individuals such as de Blasio and Carranza and institutions such as Harvard to craft policies that in fact offend the sensibilities and core values of an entire group.
Ethan Ake-Little is a Ph.D. candidate in urban education at Temple University and is enrolled in the superintendent licensure program. A former high school biology teacher, he has taught in both urban charter and suburban independent school settings in the Philadelphia region.