Fifteen-year-old Ngan Huynh, a sophomore at the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, has yet to meet a teacher this school year who can correctly pronounce her common Vietnamese name.
“It causes a disconnection between us,” Huynh said about her strained relationships with her teachers, “which can also affect my studies, because I can see that they don’t care enough to learn about my background.”
Huynh’s experience is common among Asian American students in Boston Public Schools, who, according to a recent analysis of school climate survey data, are more likely to report feeling isolated and undervalued compared with their white, Black, and Latino peers. The study, commissioned by members of the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association, reinforced what many Asian American students, teachers, and community leaders have long suspected: Although they perform better, on average, on standardized tests and are more likely to graduate high school on time, many Asian American students feel overlooked and invisible.
“The dominant narrative out there in Boston Public Schools, as well as many other places, is that Asian students are doing fine,” said former BPS teacher Go Sasaki, who spearheaded the study, along with Rosann Tung, a retired education researcher. “Based on our experiences and anecdotes, we know that is not the case.”
The study, completed last month with funding from the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, looked at student responses to the district’s 2018-2019 school climate survey, an annual measure of student attitudes and experiences. The survey asked students to answer a series of questions in a variety of categories, including physical safety, sense of belonging, and academic stress.
The researchers then analyzed differences in student responses by race and ethnicity at six BPS high schools where the student body is at least 10 percent Asian American, and ranked their responses on a scale from one to four — with “one” representing the best outcome and “four” representing the worst. Because Asian American students are often left out of conversations and policy prescriptions on equity, the researchers said they wanted to summarize and compare responses by racial and ethnic group. In nine of the 15 categories researchers focused on, Asian American students reported the most troubling responses.
Asian BPS students rank school climate lower than Black, Latino, white students do
A district survey on school climate asked students to rate their experiences in a series of categories. The researchers then analyzed differences in student responses by race and ethnicity at six BPS high schools where the student body is at least 10 percent Asian. In the nine cateogories below, Asian students reported the most troubling responses.
- PHYSICAL SAFETY: How safe do students feel at school?
- SENSE OF BELONGING: How much do students feel like they belong at school?
- SUPPORT STAFF: Do students have an adult they can talk to at school?
- ACADEMIC STRESS: How stressed do students feel about schoolwork?
- CULTURAL RELEVANCE: Do students feel represented in school? Do they see their culture in the curriculum?
- SOCIAL PERSPECTIVE TAKING: How often do students try to see the perspective of others?
- CIVIC PARTICIPATION: Do students feel getting involved in the communiy is important?
- ACADEMIC CHALLENGE: Are students encouraged to do their best work?
- TEACHER INTEREST IN STUDENTS: Do students feel cared for by their teachers?
Asian American students, for example, reported feeling the least physically safe at school, compared with students of other races and ethnicities, and they felt the most stress about their grades and schoolwork. Although Asian American students reported feeling the most engaged in their classes, they were the most likely to feel their school curriculum wasn’t relevant to their background or culture. The analysis also showed they were the least likely to feel they belonged at school, or that teachers and staff were interested in their well-being.
The findings were unveiled in a public event Saturday afternoon at VietAID’s community center in Fields Corner, in which Asian American students at BPS were invited to share their experiences. They described being stereotyped and exoticized by teachers and peers as model students and feeling, as the researchers put it, like “perpetual foreigners.” The students said they rarely learned about Asian American history in school and had almost no Asian American teachers.
Huynh said a teacher assumed she was Chinese and once spoke to her Mandarin. Qiwen Su, a sophomore at the Josiah Quincy Upper School in Chinatown, said all of her teachers call her “Wendy,” an American name she chose, because none learned to pronounce her given name.
Eighteen-year-old Lauren Choy, a senior at Boston Latin School, discussed the emotional toll of having a teacher who constantly mistakes her for other Asian American girls at her school.
“It definitely makes you feel like your teacher doesn’t care about you as much,” she said. “I participate all the time in class. I’m doing everything. But if my teacher can’t see me for just who I am and remember my name ... it shows that he just sees all Asian American students as the same.”
Linda Chen, senior deputy superintendent of academics at BPS, attended Saturday’s event and remarked at how little had changed since she was a high school student decades ago.
She said the findings underscore the “critical importance” of hiring more Asian American teachers, who currently represent just 6.5 percent of the district’s teaching corps.
“There’s probably not awareness for what students talked about,” Chen said.
Just under 9 percent of Boston Public Schools’ 46,000 students are Asian American. About 80 percent of them speak a language other than English at home — usually Vietnamese or a Chinese dialect — and, like the majority of BPS students, are mostly low income. Asian American students are overrepresented at the district’s three exam schools, where they fill between a fifth and a third of the seats.
Although they may appear successful, Asian American families, educators, and community members have long contended that Asian American students in BPS struggle with mental health issues, learning disabilities, and language barriers, and aren’t given the attention or support they need from the district.
“Based on my experience in the classroom and my work advocating in BPS, I feel like in many cases, Asian students are kind of ignored and invisibilized,” Sasaki said. “Asians are an afterthought.”
Tung noted the study’s findings echo the body of academic research on the “model minority myth” and its impact on Asian Americans’ mental health. Studies show Asian American students who feel pressured to conform to the myth that all Asians Americans are naturally high achieving often suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem, especially if they struggle academically. As a result, they may fear asking for help while their teachers wrongly assume they don’t need any.
“We don’t just need more Asian teachers,” Tung said. “We need all educators to understand and care about the Asian experience.”
Choy, the Boston Latin senior, said she realized she was less alone than she thought she was after learning about the results of the analysis, and hearing stories similar to her experiences from her Asian American peers. Choy said she feels lucky to go to school where nearly a third of the students are Asian American.
“To be honest, I kind of felt grateful in many ways,” Choy said. “[At] other schools, where Asian Americans are even more alone in their experiences, it could have been even worse.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deanna Pan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan.