Teach For America Launches Asian American & Pacific Islander Initiative

Bringing AAPI students into the conversations around educational equity.


Monday, May 12, 2014


A Polaroid-style shot of a young boy and girl playing with blocks and plastic colored chain links.


Students at PACE Early Childhood Education – Christian Fellowship site.

When we talk about improving outcomes for low-income and underrepresented students, we too often leave out the stories of our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.

The truth is that many AAPI students live with the challenges of poverty, but are left out of conversations around educational equity because of the “model minority” stereotype driving the perception of universal success among AAPI students.

We’ve all heard it before: that all Asians are good at math, that they all go to college, even that they’re not really a minority. Any stereotype or assumption about a population is a problem, and this one in particular results in many students being overlooked and underserved. It ignores the unique challenges and assets of the various groups that make up this incredibly heterogeneous population, and effectively renders their needs invisible.

Teach For America is a committed partner in the broader movement to improve life outcomes for all students. I’m honored to announce the launch of our Asian American & Pacific Islander Initiative, which will build awareness of the academic and socioeconomic circumstances facing many AAPI students, highlight the community assets that can be leveraged to meet their needs, and strengthen the field of AAPI teachers serving as powerful role models.

Building a more diverse, informed, and culturally responsive pipeline of teachers isn’t just my job – it’s a reflection of my own life path. I was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, where one in ten people live below the poverty line, and moved to Korea at age six. I was nine when I returned to Worcester, having lost most of my English. Many of my teachers dismissed me, assuming I wasn’t intelligent because I was an English Language Learner, and viewing my culture and low-income background as deficits. They held me to lower expectations, and it would have been very easy for me to get lost in the system.

I’m grateful that I had an exceptional teacher who sought to understand where I was coming from, and found a Korean translator to help me learn. I was able to take control of my own education and eventually went to Boston College, where I became active in the AAPI campus community – and met others who felt similarly invisible because their culture and background were dismissed growing up.

In the 2013-14 school year, 6 percent of Teach For America corps members identified as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander – compared to under 2 percent of teachers nationwide. This is a good start, but as an organizaion there is much more we can be doing to provide AAPI students with educational opportunites that both celebrate their culture and engender broad public understanding of what they are up against. We also have a lot more to do to further support our corps members, alumni, and staff to ensure they are the leaders our students deserve.

We can start by disaggregating the data. The AAPI community boasts a wide range of demographic characteristics unlike any other racial group in America: it consists of more than 48 ethnicities, over 300 spoken languages, varied socioeconomic status, and distinctions across immigration history, generational status, culture, and religion. Combining all ethnic groups into a lump group obscures their varied realities and histories – with subgroups this diverse, how does it possibly make sense to look at the community in aggregate?

Doing so ignores startling truths. For example, at first glance 2008 national AAPI high school graduation rates seem impressive, at 83 percent. Compared to 72 percent nationwide, this oversimplification easily positions AAPI students as the model minority. But look closer by subgroup and you’ll see that only 35-40 percent of Cambodian and Laotian students graduate high school, and only one-third of these will go on to attend college. Similar trends can be found among Pacific Islanders with 49.3 percent of Native Hawaiian, 53 percent of Guamanian, and 57.9 percent of Tongan adults not attending college.  

To shape the future of this initiative, we’re working with AAPI leaders, organizations, and communities across the country who are the experts in their own realities. The initiative seeks to listen, learn, advocate, and stand with our AAPI community leaders to identify how we may work together to accelerate our collective impact by celebrating the assets of – and expanding opportunities for – the AAPI community.

I’m humbled to stand alongside them as we work toward the day when all students are represented in the critical conversations we have around educational opportunity.


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