The Asian American and the Pacific Islander communities in the United States are growing at a dramatic pace. Recent data from the 2020 census1 as well as a recent Pew Research Center analysis2 show that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are two of the top three fastest-growing racial or ethnic groups in the country. At the current rate of growth, Asian Americans are projected3 to become the nation’s largest immigrant group by 2055, with roots in some two dozen countries. While some Asian American and Pacific Islander communities represent relatively new immigrant groups to the United States, others have a longstanding and deep history in this country. This diverse ancestry means that the cultures, lives, and challenges of individual Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and families vary widely. However, much of the discussion surrounding education policy overlooks the diversity between and within these communities, as well as their specific needs.
A key barrier to discussing the specific needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities is the common practice of combining these two groups without meaningfully addressing their differences. Federal agencies have historically grouped Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders together under the term “Asian or Pacific Islander.”4 In 1997, a directive from the White House Office of Management and Budget made changes5 to federal data collection standards on race and ethnicity and separated the two groups into “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.” This became federal practice beginning with the 2000 census. Yet in many policy sectors today, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to be discussed6 as one monolithic racial-ethnic bloc referred to as the “AAPI community,”7 either under the premise that these populations have similar needs or to encourage coalition building. Research putting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders under one banner, however, is too often inadequate, does not put forward strategies that address the groups’ varied needs, and can dilute policymakers’ ability to make resources and supports available in targeted and specific ways.
For example, the Current Population Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau includes Pacific Islanders within the Asian category, leading the data to show that 10 percent8 of Asian American children live below the poverty line, which is below the national average of 18 percent across all racial and ethnic groups.9 However, the American Community Survey disaggregates Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as separate categories: These data show that 11 percent10 of Asian American children live below the poverty line, while 23 percent11 of Pacific Islander children live below the poverty line. Treating the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities as a monolith masks the specific needs of Pacific Islander families living in poverty. It is essential that public policy solutions are targeted and crafted in a way that honors the differences in lived experiences between and within these two communities.
Therefore, the Center for American Progress is launching a new body of work dedicated to meeting the varied educational needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. CAP believes that applying an explicit racial equity lens12 toward policymaking in K-12 education is a cornerstone of ensuring that all children have access to a quality education. The K-12 Education Policy team at CAP has conducted previous research on the experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander students13 but plans to expand the application of its existing racial equity lens to include a more intentional focus on their different educational experiences. A critical component of this new body of work will include holding community conversations with students, educators, and family members representing the wide array of racial and ethnic subpopulations within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
CAP believes that applying an explicit racial equity lens toward policymaking in K-12 education is a cornerstone of ensuring that all children have access to a quality education.
The authors conducted an initial literature review of existing scholarship on the educational experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, including how these communities are often discussed in policymaking. Following this review, the authors have identified six issues areas for further exploration and policy creation:
- Improving data disaggregation and the effective use of disaggregated data.
- Recruiting and retaining Asian American and Pacific Islander educators and school leaders and centering their experiences.
- Supporting Asian American students and families who are immigrants, English language learners, or have refugee status.
- Ending disproportionate discipline and increasing college readiness for Pacific Islander students.
- Preserving traditional languages of Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous groups.
- Promoting the mental health of Asian American and Pacific Islander students.
The authors recognize that this list is not exhaustive and may not cover the full range of issues in these communities; other areas for analysis may rise to the surface as CAP engages more deeply with members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and other experts in the field.
The need to be specific when discussing the varied educational experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities
The practice of treating Asian American and Pacific Islander communities as a monolith also extends to education policy, even though on most education measures,14 these communities exhibit different trends, face different challenges, and require different solutions. For example, although only about 1 percent15 of the Asian American student community received out-of-school suspensions in 2018, 4.5 percent16 of Pacific Islander students, including 6.2 percent17 of Pacific Islander boys, received out-of-school suspensions that same year. Additionally, although both groups are comparatively smaller racial and ethnic groups within the United States,18 the Pacific Islander community in particular often faces challenges with disaggregating and reporting disaggregated data due to the fact that their smaller population size can conflict with data privacy laws and reporting rules around smaller sample sizes. Asian American and Pacific Islander communities also have different historical relationships with the United States: While immigration19 defines many Asian American experiences, many Pacific Islander communities identify as Indigenous20 and see their relationship with the United States as one fraught with colonization and militarization.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are two of the top three fastest-growing racial or ethnic groups in the country.
There are areas of overlap where it makes sense to talk about both communities together, particularly around issues of “otherization” and the rise in anti-Asian sentiment across the country.21 However, it is equally important that Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are discussed in a way that adequately engages with their distinct experiences.
In conducting its research, CAP is committed to honoring the diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities by presenting this body of work as including two distinct populations with unique needs. Both are important, and CAP aims to uplift and address ways to improve the K-12 educational experiences of both communities. Additionally, CAP recognizes the many diverse subpopulations within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and will pull out their unique experiences where appropriate. With these lenses in mind, CAP is excited to introduce the following six key issue areas that this new area of research will investigate.
Six key issues in future CAP K-12 work
1. Improving data disaggregation and effective use of disaggregated data
In addition to significant differences between the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, there is also a great deal of diversity among different racial and ethnic subpopulations. Looking at student outcomes or student experience trends for Asian American and Pacific Islander students as a whole masks differences within these groups and allows certain subpopulations to struggle unnoticed.22 For example, although the National Center for Education Statistics reported that Asian American students collectively only had a dropout rate of 2 percent, Bangladeshi students had a 4 percent dropout rate and Burmese students had a dropout rate of nearly 30 percent.23 In Washington state, disaggregated data showed that Tongan and Samoan students were much more likely than other Asian American and Pacific Islander subpopulations to have five or more unexcused school absences.24 Recently, some states with large Asian American and Pacific Islander student populations—such as California, Washington, and New York—have proposed or enacted legislation to further disaggregate their collected and reported education data.25
Looking at student outcomes or student experience trends for Asian American and Pacific Islander students as a whole masks differences within these groups and allows certain subpopulations to struggle unnoticed.
While there has been much literature26 dedicated to the need for greater disaggregation of education data, the opportunity exists now, with a number of states adopting disaggregation measures, for CAP to follow up with schools in these states to see how they are using these data to create policies that better support Asian American and Pacific Islander students and families and address disparities that exist in student outcomes or experiences. Reporting on the lessons learned from these efforts can serve as a helpful blueprint for other school districts and further strengthen the case for how data disaggregation can make a difference for the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Additionally, there may be federal or state efforts to disaggregate and report data that have stalled for a variety of reasons. Speaking with policymakers and researchers working on these efforts about the barriers they have encountered may help future disaggregation efforts foresee and overcome these same challenges. In particular, this could be important for efforts to disaggregate and report data on Pacific Islander students, who often have a smaller population size than Asian American students and thus have a difficult time disaggregating their data without running into student privacy rules.
2. Recruiting and retaining Asian American and Pacific Islander educators and school leaders by centering their experiences
There has been a significant amount of research and policy initiatives focused on improving the racial and ethnic and linguistic diversity of the teacher workforce.27 However, increasing the number of Asian American and Pacific Islander educators and school leaders has rarely been the focus of these efforts despite a strong need. Asian Americans make up only 2 percent of teachers and 1 percent of school principals, even though Asian Americans represent 5 percent of the school-age population.28 Pacific Islander educators comprise less than 0.5 percent29 of U.S. teachers and school principals; while this number reflects their representation within the student population, Pacific Islanders have also seen some of the largest enrollment declines in teacher preparation programs.30 Therefore, it is crucial to identify strategies to ensure that more Pacific Islander educators are not only entering but also staying in the profession.
Share of U.S. teachers who are Asian American
Share of U.S. school principals who are Asian American
Share of U.S. teachers and school principals who are Pacific Islander
CAP has an opportunity to speak directly with Asian American and Pacific Islander educators and school leaders about their experiences, including their interest and awareness of the teaching profession while they were in high school. Other areas of focus for discussion may include challenges with teacher preparation programs and other barriers to entry to the profession; what supports are needed to pursue leadership opportunities; and what resources are needed to best support Asian American and Pacific Islander students. These conversations would add to the few studies that do exist on the recruitment and retention of Asian American and Pacific Islander educators31 and ultimately better inform policies to increase the number of educators and school leaders who are well-equipped to support all their students, but especially Asian American and Pacific Islander students and families.
3. Supporting Asian American students and families who are immigrants, English language learners, or have refugee status
Southeast Asian Americans represent the largest resettled refugee population in the United States, and this population struggles with economic insecurity, low educational attainment, and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
About 57 percent of Asian Americans, including 71 percent of adults, were born outside of the United States.32
The history and timelines of immigration vary for different Asian American subpopulations, meaning that students and families arrive at school with different needs. For example, in 2019, 72 percent of Asian Americans were proficient in English, but this share was lower for Asian subpopulations that immigrated more recently, such as Bhutanese and Burmese Americans at 36 percent and 38 percent, respectively.33
This reality can affect the types of investments and resources schools need to effectively engage with students and their families, such as translation services. Additionally, 10.7 percent of all English learners are Asian American, making them the second-largest group after Hispanic students.34
Some Asian American immigrants came originally as refugees: Southeast Asian Americans from countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos represent the largest resettled refugee population in the United States, and unfortunately, this population struggles with economic insecurity, low educational attainment, and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.35
Given the variety of experiences among Asian American students and families who are immigrants, English learners, or refugees, it is important to be specific about what resources and supports are needed to address their needs. For example, CAP could speak with school leaders and educators in schools that enroll many Asian American English learners to see what challenges are present and determine what strategies have worked best to support these students and engage with their families. Additionally, CAP could conduct an analysis schools’ efforts to make their services culturally relevant and accessible to families who may not be proficient in English, building on research that has shown problems with accurately communicating information about important services such as individualized education programs and mental health services.36
4. Ending disproportionate discipline and increasing college readiness for Pacific Islander students
There is a wealth of existing research on the disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color, with a particular focus on Black and Latino students.37 Unfortunately, not as much research has been done on the experiences of Pacific Islander students, who also face high rates of discipline, especially compared with their Asian American and white peers. Nationally, only 1 percent of Asian American students and 3.4 percent of white students are suspended, compared with 4.5 percent of Pacific Islander students, including 6.2 percent of Pacific Islander boys.38 In Washington state, Pacific Islander students are two times more likely than their white peers to be disciplined, despite representing a much smaller percentage of the student population.39 Suspensions and other harsh discipline practices are associated with negative student outcomes, such as higher dropout rates, which holds true for Pacific Islander students.40 In 2018, Asian American students saw only a 2 percent dropout rate, but Pacific Islander students had an 8 percent dropout rate.41 Unfortunately, these disparities contribute to the fact that Pacific Islanders are also less likely to attend and graduate from college. In 2019, only 22 percent of Pacific Islanders ages 25 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 71 percent of Asian Americans and a national average of 39 percent.42
Share of Pacific Islander students who are suspended from school
Share of Pacific Islander boys who are suspended from school
It is therefore important to speak with Pacific Islander students and collect more information about their particular experiences with school discipline in order to develop targeted policy solutions alongside a broader push for alternatives to harsh disciplinary practices. Additionally, it is important to ask questions that will help identify what other factors are contributing to higher dropout rates: Does the Pacific Islander student population have basic needs that are not being met? Are schools failing to provide focused academic support? How do racial biases affect the Pacific Islander student experience?
In interviews, some Pacific Islander students have identified two different kinds of racism they face from educators: Either they are perceived as perfect students under the “model minority” myth43 and their academic needs are ignored, or they are perceived as deviant exceptions to this rule and tracked into less challenging classes and discouraged from attending four-year colleges.44 More must be done to ensure that all Pacific Islander youth are prepared for college and have the option to choose their own postsecondary path, not be forced into one. Pacific Islander students are currently less likely to meet certain college readiness benchmarks,45 and students have noted a lack of specific supports in college application and scholarship processes.46 With the insights gleaned from Pacific Islander students and their families, CAP could provide tailored recommendations for schools to better support their Pacific Islander students in preparing for college and beyond.
5. Preserving traditional languages of Native Hawaiian and other Indigenous communities
For Indigenous communities such as Pacific Islander students and their families, a critical issue is the preservation of their native languages. The history of colonization and militarization, as well as the annexation and occupation of Pacific Islander nations by other countries, has left many traditional Indigenous languages endangered, including the native language of Hawaii. Hawaiians suffered decades under a colonial English-only law that forbade speaking and teaching of the Native Hawaiian language;47 now, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Atlas of Endangered Languages, it is critically endangered48—meaning that there is a decreasing rate of transmission in the language being passed on to children as their first language.49 The Linguistic Society of America projects that unless the current trends of Indigenous languages being replaced by English or Spanish are reversed, many endangered languages will become extinct within the next century.50
The history of colonization and militarization, as well as the annexation and occupation of Pacific Islander nations by other countries, has left many traditional Indigenous languages endangered, including the native language of Hawaii.
Hawaii is attempting to reverse this trend through language preservation and reclamation in their preschools and K-12 system.51
The state constitution of Hawaii was officially amended in 1978 to include Native Hawaiian as an official state language and to promote the teaching of Hawaiian culture, history, and language in its public schools.52
In the 1980s, the state established a Hawaiian Studies Program within the state Department of Education, paving the way for the creation of the Hawaiian Language Immersion Program in 1986.53
These immersion schools, operated by the Hawaii Department of Education, have grown to 21 sites and six charter locations across the state’s eight islands and provide exclusive instruction in Native Hawaiian for students until fifth grade.54
This policy of traditional language preservation in Hawaii’s public schools has been a success: A 2016 state government report estimated that the number of Native Hawaiian speakers in the state had grown to more than 18,000 people, up from around just 2,000 people in the 1960s.55
There are inevitable challenges and setbacks to sustaining these kinds of programs, including developing a pipeline of teachers who are fluent in Native Hawaiian56 as well as agreement on what kind of curriculum to build.57 However, these discussions also provide an opportunity for CAP to learn from Native Hawaiian educators, school leaders, families, and communities to gain insights and formulate recommendations to support other Indigenous communities looking to preserve their language. In addition, CAP could investigate what kinds of supports and services are needed to ensure that Hawaii’s immersion schools and language preservation efforts remain successful.
6. Promoting the mental health of Asian American and Pacific Islander students
In addition to supporting students’ learning and academic achievement, schools also play an important role in meeting students’ social-emotional and mental health needs. Yet Asian American and Pacific Islander student communities are sometimes left out of these policy conversations, due to the perception that these populations do not require support given their academic success as an aggregate and overall lower reported prevalence of mental illnesses.58 However, in 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death for both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders ages 15 to 24,59 and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are significantly less likely than white people to seek mental health treatment.60 Given the isolating and often traumatizing experience61 of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the increased anti-Asian hate and bullying62 during this period, strengthening mental health supports for Asian American and Pacific Islander students is critical.
In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death for both Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders ages 15 to 24.
Although there is existing research about barriers to mental health care for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in general, CAP aims to focus on the experiences of Asian American and Pacific Islander students, including by identifying what school-level factors contribute to negative mental health outcomes and how school mental health services can be made more accessible and culturally competent. Speaking directly with Asian American and Pacific Islander students will be crucial, especially given the lack of disaggregated data on this topic. Additionally, CAP could meet with specific groups within Asian American and Pacific Islander student communities that have particularly negative experiences at school and might need targeted mental health support. For example, 40 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander students who also identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community reported experiencing harassment or assault at school due to both their queer identity and race.63 Compared with their peers who did not experience race- or sexual orientation-based bullying, these students saw a higher level of depression, were more likely to skip school due to feeling unsafe, and felt a lower level of belonging to their school community.64 Finally, CAP will also speak with educators, school leaders, and counselors about how they can better support the mental health of Asian American and Pacific Islander students. These conversations may include questions about how prepared staff feel to provide culturally responsive and supportive school environments; whether schools have appropriate staffing to provide mental health support; and what policies are currently in place that are successfully meeting the needs of Asian American and Pacific Islander students.
Asian American and Pacific Islander communities encompass many different cultures, histories, and experiences and are still growing to include many more. Although there is some existing research about their educational experiences, there are several opportunities for further research and policy development, especially around the following six key issues: improving data disaggregation; recruiting and retaining Asian American and Pacific Islander educators and school leaders and centering their experiences; supporting Asian American students and families who are immigrants, refugees, or English language learners; ending disproportionate discipline and improving college readiness for Pacific Islander students; ensuring the preservation of languages for Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous cultures; and supporting the mental health of Asian American and Pacific Islander students.
To that end, CAP is excited to launch a new body of work this year that will focus on the K-12 educational experiences of the Asian American and the Pacific Islander communities. A central component of this research will include speaking with Asian American and Pacific Islander educators, students, and family members, as their insights and experiences will help inform CAP’s policy recommendations. CAP will also be intentional about using disaggregated data where possible and parsing how specific racial and ethnic subpopulations within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities experience various education challenges. Ultimately, these analyses will help policymakers and education advocates advance the most important goal, which is ensuring a high-quality education for every child—including all Asian American and Pacific Islander students.
The authors would like to thank several colleagues at the Center for American Progress for providing their insights and feedback to this report: Silva Mathema, Lorena Roque, Jill Rosenthal, Marcella Bombardieri, Marshall Anthony, Victoria Yuen, Max Hoffman, Lily Roberts, and Juli Adhikari. Additionally, the authors would like to thank Julie Ajinkya from APIA Scholars for reviewing this report and providing helpful comments and suggestions.