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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

February 11, 2009

Written by C.N.

New University of California Admissions Rules

A popular topic on this blog is university admissions and the representation of students from all racial/ethnic groups, especially at the University of California (‘UC’), the nation’s largest, most diverse, and in many ways, the most controversial higher education venue in the country. With the debate on affirmative action still on high boil and as American society continues to become more diverse, the issue of university admissions is likely to be on the front burner of American educational policy for the foreseeable future.

The latest flare-up involves recently-approved changes to the University of California’s admissions requirements that tries to expand the pool of students who are eligible for admissions (as opposed to the actual criteria for deciding who actually is admitted). As Inside Higher Education reports, according to data from the UC itself, they project that under these new eligibility rules, the racial/ethnic group that would be affected most negatively in terms of admissions are Asian Americans:

36 percent of those admitted to the university system in 2007-8 were Asian Americans. Applying the new admissions standards, that percentage would drop to 29-32 percent. In contrast, white applicants made up 34 percent of those admitted in 2007-8. Under the proposed reforms, they would have made up 41 to 44 percent of the entering class. . . .

But university leaders are playing down the demographic projections and defending the admissions plan, which emerged from the Academic Senate, a system-wide faculty group. . . . The proposal before the Board of Regents today would do the following:

  • End the requirement that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.
  • Narrow from the top 12.5 to the top 9 percent of high school graduates the percentage who will be guaranteed admission to the university system (although not necessarily to the campus of their choice).
  • Expand the definition of applicants eligible for a full admission review to include all who complete 11 of 15 required high school courses by the end of their junior year, and achieve a grade-point average of at least 3.0

The last shift is expected to greatly expand the pool of those entitled to a full admissions review, where personal qualities and other factors may help some win admission. Indeed those deemed eligible for a full review would go up in all racial and ethnic groups. But the gains in eligibility are not necessarily going to translate into gains in admissions for all groups. . . .

Mary Croughan, an epidemiologist at the university’s San Francisco campus and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, said that the apparent disadvantage for Asian Americans is actually a result of their success. Such a large share of Asian American high school students already are eligible to be considered and win admission that their numbers couldn’t go up as much as those of other groups, she said.

It appears that there are two separate issues here. The first is, changing admissions eligibility rules so that more students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (specifically, African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians) will be eligible for admissions. On that count, I have always and continue to wholly support such efforts.

If these changes do in fact allow students from a more diverse set of backgrounds to have a chance at admission, they would be very similar to the kind of “holistic admissions” changes that I and other scholars support that do not focus specifically on an applicant’s race/ethnicity but would still give underrepresented minority students a better chance at admissions. So in this context, I think everybody involved is basically on the same page and share the common goal of wanting to improve the admissions chances of underrepresented students.

But it’s the second issue here that is much more controversial — will these proposed changes affect Asian Americans in a disproportionately negative way and will their proportions of all admissions decline as a result? The first question to ask is, how accurate are the UC’s own estimates and predictions? How likely is it that Asian American applicants will be hurt by these new changes? If it turns out that these changes do not affect the proportion of Asian Americans, the question is basically moot.

A regular reader of my blog (Oiyan Poon, graduate student in Education) is writing an analysis paper on this issue and makes several good points. First is that because the new eligibility rules basically expands the number of California students eligible for admissions (from 46,795 to 76,141), in terms of raw numbers, all racial/ethnic groups, including Asian Americans, will see an increase in the actual number of students eligible (about 4,000 for APAs).

But since the number of the increase for Asian Americans is small in proportion to their existing number of eligible students, the percent change represents an increase relative to the new overall total of students eligible for admissions. However, Oiyan points out that these projections are very tentative (projected to affect the first eligible class four years from now) and are based on several debatable assumptions — for instance, not all eligible students actually apply for admissions to the UCs. Finally, most of the increase in eligibility for APAs will benefit low-income and first generation students.

So as Oiyan points out, there are valid questions over whether the dire projections about fewer APA students being admitted under these new rules. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the new rules do end up lowering the proportion of each entering class that is Asian American. If so, the question then becomes, how fair are these changes? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to that particular question.

On the one hand, as the article points out, the number of Asian American applicants to the UC’s is already disproportionately high so that as a matter of simple mathematics, there’s not much room to go any higher and almost by default, their numbers would decline somewhat as a result of these changes.

On the other hand, we can validly argue that even if Asian Americans as a whole have disproportionately high application and admissions numbers, the fact is that every one of those Asian American students has worked hard and earned that position. Therefore, these changes would unfairly hurt them when in fact, they did everything right.

Inevitably, if these changes result in lower Asian American admission rates, there would certainly be a loud outcry from many critics of affirmative action — many of whom are already Asian American — that once again, “good” students are being denied admissions in favor of “mediocre” ones.

My position on affirmative action has always been two-fold: first, whether it relates to university admissions, government contracts, job preferences, etc., these areas of contention do not have to be zero sum propositions. That is, one person’s gain does not automatically have to mean another person’s loss. Instead, we can have a system that includes plenty of opportunities for everyone.

I understand that the number of university admission spots is not infinite and you have to draw the line somewhere, but if we as a society make higher education a higher priority, we can provide more opportunities for more students. In the process of doing so, we can also depressurize this atmosphere of intensity and hostility over a resource that in many ways, has been artificially limited.

My second point is that rather than focusing disproportionate attention on the symptoms of the problem, we need to address the fundamental cause of it — the unequal quality of education that underrepresented groups such as African Americans and Latinos face. In other words, through no fault of their own and even if they are extremely bright and hardworking, many such students receive a substandard education that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to university admissions.

For this reason, affirmative action was created to help them overcome these structural (as opposed to individual) disadvantages. So to really cure the root problem, we need to focus more attention on ensuring that all students, regardless of their race or where they live, receive access to a high quality education that will ultimately put everyone on the same level of competitiveness.

These are issues that we as a society have been dealing with and trying to address for generations and obviously, such solutions are easier said than done. However, for the first time in a long time, I think we have a realistic chance at making such changes. Hopefully this new administration can begin to take constructive steps toward more equality in elementary and secondary schools that can put underrepresented students in a better position to compete for university admissions.

With any hope, such disagreements around these admissions eligibility changes and the entire debate around affirmative action will fade into the background, if we tackle the root of the problem, rather than just trying to alleviate the symptoms.

December 4, 2008

Written by C.N.

Asian American Named as a Top Educator

As an educator myself, this news item was particularly significant for me: San Francisco elementary school teacher Mindy Yip just won the prestigious Milken Foundation award for being the country’s best teacher (thanks to New America Media for the tip):

The Visitacion Valley children and their teachers had been on the hard floor for nearly an hour. They had no idea why they were assembled – told only that the politicians and other important people were there because of the school’s great test scores. That was a ruse. . . .

Then Mike Milken, prominent financier and philanthropist, started talking about money. He said he had a big surprise. He told the students he was there to give one teacher $25,000, no strings attached – a prize described by some as “the Oscars” of teaching. . . .

Yip pointed to the back of the room, mouthing to a parent that the winner must be one of the fourth- or fifth-grade teachers. Then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, opened the envelope to announce the winner of the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award.

“Mindy Yip,” Pelosi announced, smiling at the first-grade teacher who looked shocked, but also wary, apparently wondering if she heard right. She looked around, confused. Then she started crying. . . .

Yip never knew she was under consideration for the award. The state Department of Education asked principals last spring to recommend excellent teachers with more than five years in the classroom and fewer than 10. Her name was submitted by Visitacion Valley Principal Vincent Chao. . . .

The Milken Foundation noted that Yip has been a leader at her school, using creative ways to motivate students, including asking them to design homework for her. She also speaks six languages, including Cantonese, Lao, Hmong and Vietnamese, which enables her to communicate with the diverse students’ families.

Although I don’t know Ms. Yip, I am nonetheless proud of her and inspired by her accomplishments. Congratulations to Ms. Yip for her dedication, hard work, and for serving as a role model for all Asian Americans.

October 14, 2008

Written by C.N.

Racial Education Gap is Getting Worse

As the economy continues to worsen and as average American families encounter more difficulties trying to make ends meet, two “social trends” that have been constant through these recurring cycles of bust and boom are that (1) getting a good education is crucial to social mobility and financial security and (2) each succeeding generation has been able to improve their rates of getting a college degree.

But now, as Inside Higher Education reports, new data from the American Council on Education shows that perhaps for the first time in American history, some racial groups may actually be doing worse then their predecessors in terms of achieving a college education:

The latest generation of adults in the United States may be the first since World War II, and possibly before that, not to attain higher levels of education than the previous generations.

While White and Asian American young people are outpacing previous generations, the gaps for other minority groups are large enough that the current generation is, on average, heading toward being less educated than its predecessor. . . .

For Black and Latino women, for example, the most recent generation outperformed the prior ones, but the opposite is true for men. And across racial and ethnic groups, women are achieving a higher educational attainment than men.

Educational attainment by age group and race

To summarize, the data basically show that comparing the percentage of adults with at least an associate’s degree, younger Whites and Asian Americans (those between 25-29 years old) had slightly higher attainment rates than their older counterparts (those who are age 30 and older), and this corresponds with the long-established trend that succeeding generations improving their educational attainment rates over previous generations.

However, the opposite seems to be true for African Americans, Latinos, and Native American Indians — those in the younger group have lower educational attainment rates than their older counterparts, which means the younger generation seem to be falling behind the older generation.

The data also shows that across all racial/ethnic groups, women have higher rates of having at least an associate’s degree than men.

So what are some possible reasons behind this trend of African Americans, Latinos, and Native American Indians falling behind, in contrast to Whites and Asian Americans? It may be tempting, especially among nativists and those who are racially ignorant, to say that these three minority groups are less qualified, motivated, and/or intelligent enough to complete college and attain social mobility.

However, the rest of the Inside Higher Education article provides more details for us to understand this situation more fully. Specifically, the article also notes that high school graduation rates for these three groups of color have remained constant over the past two decades (even though they still trail that of Asian Americans).

Further, the article notes that “Total minority enrollment increased by 50 percent, to 5 million students, between 1995 and 2005.” This tells us that after graduating high school, Black, Latino, and Native American Indian students are still entering college in large numbers.

So the problem seems to be, once they get into college, somewhere along the line, these minority students are not able to complete their associate’s or bachelor’s degrees.

Is it because they are unprepared for the academic demands involved? That is one possible reason. But more likely, and as other studies have suggested, since these three racial minority groups tend to be less affluent than Whites or Asian Americans, the main reason may be that as college expenses keep skyrocketing, these students eventually are unable to afford completing their college education and are more likely to drop out of college because of lack of finances.

As other studies also show, there are still gaps at many colleges in terms of racial inclusion — cultivating a welcoming atmosphere and social environment in which students of color feel supported and secure:

Intolerance, threats and verbal insults pervaded the campuses of three predominately White institutions, the University of California, Berkeley, Michigan State University, and Columbia College, according to a student survey in the recently released report, “If I’d Only Known.”

The report reveals that more than 60 percent of students at MSU reported witnessing or personally experiencing such incidents of violence based on intolerance, followed by 49 percent of students at UC Berkeley and 43 percent of students at Columbia. . . .

Research shows that comfortable environments play a major role in minority persistence. Scholars agree that isolation and racial violence contribute to the high minority drop-out rates at some institutions.

Ultimately, this trend of Black, Latino, and Native American Indian students beginning to fall behind their older counterparts in terms of educational attainment involves many factors. While some reasons undoubtedly relate to individual abilities or motivations, as studies continue to show, there are still many institutional inequalities and barriers that make it more difficult for these students to complete their degrees.

Whatever the causes, this is a disturbing trend that all of us as Americans should be concerned about.

September 5, 2006

Written by C.N.

Asian American Students Still Deal with Violence

No matter how much we as Asian Americans show that we want to be part of the American mainstream, it seems almost inevitable that we encounter resistance, hostility, and at times, violence in that process. One group of Asian Americans for whom that is a sad part of their daily lives is high school students. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reports, the demographics of a town or high school can change, but violence against perceived “foreigners” still lingers:

Student leaders stopped in St. Paul, Minneapolis and White Bear Lake asking school administrators to address problems facing Hmong students. Racism, hostile school climates, college readiness and language barriers were some of the challenges discussed. . . . Students said violence also is often an unavoidable part of their school lives.

Kabee Chang, who is not related to Mysee Chang, has only lived in the United States for two years since emigrating from Thailand. At Minneapolis’ North High School, Kabee Chang said it’s difficult to avoid a fight. His friends have been hit in the head and punched while going from one class to another.

“One time I could see my friend had been hit, so I was afraid to go in the bathroom because the same thing would happen to me,” Kabee Chang said. Out of fear, he said now he won’t go into the bathroom or hallways by himself.

It is nothing less than an outrage and tragedy when students of any racial/ethnic/cultural background encounter violence and harassment in their attempts to get an education, so that they can improve their lives, their family’s lives, and be a productive citizen of the U.S. We cannot expect students to excel academically when even their most basic need to feel physically safe can’t be guaranteed.

In that context, school districts and officials bear the responsibility to ensure that students can get an education in a safe environment. Yes it would be nice if teachers and counselors are culturally-competent and nurture students as much as possible, but at the very least — the bare minimum, schools need to provide their students with an environment that is free from ongoing threats of violence and physical harassment.

November 29, 2005

Written by C.N.

Continuing Violence Against Asian Students

In an earlier post, I wrote about a persistent pattern of discrimination and physical violence perpetrated against Asian American students at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn — so bad that the Justice Department had to step in to force the school to take corrective action to protect the Asian students. Following up on this trend, the Associated Press reports that despite recent efforts to highlight this growing problem around the country, physical attacks still continue to occur:

Nationwide, Asian students say they’re often beaten, threatened and called ethnic slurs by other young people, and school safety data suggest that the problem may be worsening. Youth advocates say these Asian teens, stereotyped as high-achieving students who rarely fight back, have for years borne the brunt of ethnic tension as Asian communities expand and neighborhoods become more racially diverse. . . .

Stories of Asian youth being bullied and worse are common. In recent years: a Chinese middle schooler in San Francisco was mercilessly taunted until his teacher hid him in her classroom at lunchtime; three Korean-American students were beaten so badly near their Queens high school that they skipped school for weeks and begged to be transferred; a 16-year-old from Vietnam was killed last year in a massive brawl in Boston. . . .

Increasingly, some victims are fighting back. A 2003 California survey . . . found that 14 percent of Asian youth said they join gangs for protection. Department of Justice school crime data found the number of Asian youth carrying weapons nearly tripled from 1999 to 2001. “There are more Asian kids being brought to juvenile court for assault and battery,” Arifuku said.

“The thing we’re finding in their history is that they had been picked on — called names and teased — and in some cases they lashed out and retaliated.” Advocates and students say that, typically, large fights erupt after weeks or months of verbal taunting.

It is truly sad and infuriating to see Asian American students — or any students for that matter — first, being targeted for physical violence on an everyday basis, and second, being subjected to utter indifference and even contempt by school officials who deny that there are any problems. It should tell you something that even the Bush administration’s Justice Department felt that things were getting out of hand at Lafayette High and had to finally step in.

For every article or news story that describes how Asian culture is increasingly being accepted, embraced, and integrated into the American mainstream, there are stories like this one that remind us that in many ways, Asian Americans still have to fight an uphill battle not just to be considered “real Americans,” but for many, just to stay alive.

September 8, 2005

Written by C.N.

Education Gone Wrong

You’ve probably heard of the reality TV show “What Not to Wear.” Well, maybe someone should profile Lafayette High School in Brooklyn as “What Not to Do” in terms of supporting the equal education of Asian Americans. As Newsday reports, the Bush administration has just brought federal civil rights charges against Lafayette High, alleging that it failed to address racially-motivated violence against Asian American students and therefore, has violated their rights to a public education:

An Asian student who was a freshman at the Brooklyn school was punched on his way home in April, but administrators refused to investigate or to let anyone look at a student photo book to identify attackers, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Manhattan.

Among other cases involving Asian students this past school year, one boy was choked by a classmate in the boys’ locker room, and another boy complained that administrators told him they had lost the paperwork on his report.

“An atmosphere has been bred at the school where students feel free to harass Asian students without much retribution,” the group’s attorney, Khin Mai Aung, said Friday. “It’s been going on for years and nothing has been done to effectively fix things.”

At first glance, my reaction is that I can’t believe Asian American students are still subjected to this kind of treatment. It’s one thing to be the target of a racially-motived physical attack. What conpounds the misery even more is when the people who are entrusted to protect your rights and well-being ignore your complaints and instead, actually make it easier for you to be repeatedly victimized.

The irony is that this high school is not located in some isolated rural community where 98% of the students are White — it’s located in Brooklyn, NY — perhaps the most racially/ethnically diverse city in the entire U.S. and where one-quarter of the students are of Asian descent. Absolutely amazing . . .