The “Model Minority” = A+ Student

A key element to the conceptualization of the “model minority” is academic excellence. The Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) population is seen as having an aptitude for rigorous study and school subjects, primarily math and science. This idea is rationalized through the interpretation that, as a “model minority,” Asians perform well academically and professionally despite any personal struggles, and are therefore smarter than other racial demographic groups.

As people with different goals, ethnic backgrounds, and cultural values, school performance and student perception of schooling naturally varies. However, the “model minority” disregards those cultural and ethnic differences, acting as a blanket term for all AAPI students.

This page will discuss the impact on and implications of predetermined ideas about academic excellence for AAPI communities. We survey issues of how one’s background affects academic performance, the role of one’s non-nativeness and language proficiency in school, mental health, and the repercussions to the label of the “model minority” in academic settings.

How the “Model Minority” Became the Model Student

Immigration from Asia surged after the 1960s. U.S. exclusionary immigration quotas ended in 1965 and resulted in an influx of new Asian immigrants, from upper and middle-class professionals to political refugees. Seeking better opportunities and/or safety in the United States, these Asian immigrants settled in and sent their children to American schools. Asian American Pacific Islanders became the fastest-growing minority in the United States, jumping from 891,000 in the 1960s to over five million in the 1980s, accounting for 2.1% of the population (Divoky 220).

New immigrants come to the U.S. at different ages for different reasons with different educational and cultural experiences. Their academic achievement and educational needs naturally vary a great deal.

Yong Zhao and Wei Qiu, “How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement” (p. 340)

Immigration status plays a crucial role in Asian American Pacific Islander students’ schooling. Some are foreign-born “fresh off the boat” first generation immigrants, while others are U.S.-born, second or third generation. Some arrive in the U.S. as refugees, while others come as students or seeking employment (340). Immigrant families have different educational backgrounds as well as different experiences and ideas of school, all of which have an impact on AAPI students’ academic achievement, as they need to adjust to a new environment and foreign school system.

Countries that invested resources in economic growth during the twentieth century, such as Vietnam, Taiwan, India, South Korea, China, and Japan, enabled development in education and fostered environments in which education was easily accessible and available (Pang 385-6). This led to more Asian immigrants with higher levels of education. For some countries, like Vietnam, infrastructure was built as a result of a long history of colonization. In other countries, like Cambodia or Laos, their political and war-ravaged circumstances did not allow them to have the economic means to bolster their own educational systems, disadvantaging some Cambodian and Lao refugees immigrating to the U.S. and attending American schools.

Some scholars believe that because “economic development was not a strong force in Cambodia, Laos, Guam, and other Pacific Islands,” immigrants from these countries do not have the same levels of educational or professional experience, which therefore might account for lower academic achievement (Pang 386). However, many Asian immigrants were already familiar with competitive high school and university admissions in their native countries; families from Vietnam, Taiwan, China, India, and Japan came to the United States already having ambitious educational practices.

Asian-Americans contradict our sense of the way racial minorities behave in American schools. Although they are often poor and sometimes troubled, these problems do not usually hamper their academic achievement. Because they sometimes challenge our finest American educational institutions and outstrip the brightest and the best students in them, we find Asian-American youngsters curious and sometimes threatening.

Diane Divoky, “The Model Minority Goes to School.” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 70 (p. 219)

As immigrants from Asia settled into American neighborhoods and schools in the 1960s through the 80s and 90s, a lack of wider cultural and historical awareness of this marginalized, multiethnic demographic group perpetuated the “model minority” stereotype. The “model minority” in education assumes that Asians are predisposed to academic excellence. However, the label ignores the diverse backgrounds of these students and assumes their academic prowess without acknowledging the relevance of their cultural differences, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, mental health, or personal histories in educational attainment. In actuality, there is nothing inherent about academic excellence tied to Asian American Pacific Islander students. Research and surveys have shown that “Effort, not genes, matters in student achievement (Stevenson and Stigler 1992)”  (Zhao and Qiu, 341).

Nevertheless, students from Asian immigrant families entered into American schools with both internal and external expectations hanging over their heads.

Densho. Grammar school. 1942. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Collection, photo by photographer Francis Stewart.

Family Support

There is some truth to the desire of AAPI students to do well in school. Their motives for high academic achievement are often rooted in filial piety, as “Asian-identified students were motivated to work hard because they felt obligated to their families for the sacrifices that they had made” (Lee 418). Other Asian-identified students may wish to pursue well-paying jobs to help support their parents.

These students told me that their parents had taught them that doing well in school was important in order to do well in this country.

Stacey J. Lee,  Anthropology & Education Quarterly, vol. 25 (p. 418)

For the children of these Asian immigrant families, either foreign-born or U.S.-born AAPI, say that a primary reason for their families to come to the U.S. is for the educational opportunities. And because the children’s education is such an important reason for their immigration to the United States, these students admitted feeling “the responsibility and guilt [...] for their parents’ sacrifices” (Lee 417). For some families, Asian immigrant parents sacrifice their livelihoods in their native country to provide better education for their children in the competitive, reputable United States. This “sacrifice” motivated AAPI students to do well in school, to study harder and earn better grades, academic accomplishments, awards — proof that their immigration to the United States was a worthwhile investment.

However, this family support can be a double-edged sword. Students often experience  extreme pressure and stress, and although some successful AAPI attribute family sacrifices for their prosperous futures, others resent the pressure they feel to fulfill their parents’ wishes (Divoky 221). Parental figures become academic coaches at home (from which we have the “tiger mom” stereotype), as parents emphasize the importance of education and delegate time for rigorous study outside of school.

AAPI students, having various backgrounds and within different generations of immigrants, feel pressure not only from their parents’ high expectations, but from (white) American peers as well. “The tension between parental expectations and the school environment in a new culture is difficult for many Asian immigrant youngsters to bridge. ‘The tradition is to value education, and so the parent pushes the child and says, ‘Get me a doctor’s degree,’’ said Ngo Pham, a social worker for Lutheran Social Services of Minnesota” (Divoky 221). Even as AAPI identities in school are torn between the demands of family and school settings, the widespread assumption that these students embody the “model minority” identity ultimately renders those concerns invisible, as the dominant perception of these students is that their academic excellence comes easily.

Although the students who identified as Asian worked hard and held positive attitudes toward schooling, these students ranged from high achievers to low achievers. The experience of the low achievers suggests that positive attitudes and hard work do not necessarily guarantee school success.

Stacey J. Lee, “Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype: Voices of High- and Low-Achieving Asian American Students.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, vol. 25 (p. 418)

An obligation to family can be motivation for the AAPI student to perform well in school, but unlike what the “model minority” implies, these hardworking AAPI students are not necessarily high-achieving academic scholars. Contrary to the expectations of the “model minority” label, AAPI students are like any other student, and may not all be naturally gifted, necessarily stress-free, or always at the top of their class.

The Invisible “Model Minority” Obstacles in Education

One more challenge to students who are perceived as the “model minority” is that they face additional struggles generated by language barriers in their adjustment into American society. In American schools, proficiency in English is often mistaken to correlate to students’ academic abilities. Frequently coming from immigrant families with foreign roots, English may not be the first language of AAPI students, creating tensions and discrepancies within the “model minority” title as an academic superstar. The “model minority” claims high educational achievements, but poor English skills counteracts that claim in the English-speaking American majority, as some AAPI students might not understand nuanced English literature or reading materials that focus within a culturally Western context. It is important to understand that language proficiency is not reflective of the scholarly capabilities of AAPI students. Rather, it can mask their potential, due to the level of communication needed in order to interact and succeed in school.

Many AAPI students are English learners; it can be difficult to learn reading skills in a second language. The cultural contexts of reading passages may be a hindrance. If literary materials describe culturally unfamiliar experiences, students may have difficulty learning new readings skills and vocabulary while they grapple with cultural displacement.

Valerie Ooka Pang, et al. “Asian American and Pacific Islander Students: Equity and the Achievement Gap.” Educational Researcher, vol. 40, no. 8, 2011 (p. 385)

In some instances, poor English language proficiency can hinder their education. Varying levels of class performance among Asian American students can be attributed to limited English proficiency, a potential source for academic difficulty (Lee 417). English is one of the core subjects in American schools, and for AAPI students who are learning English as a second language, might struggle with reading comprehension and writing skills. Outside of English class and reading/writing lessons, AAPI students might struggle to communicate with teachers and peers. And in some cases, it might even prevent AAPI students from seeking academic help.

…Ming’s reluctance to seek academic support was based on his desire to live within the boundaries of the model-minority stereotype. Since academic failure clearly contradicts the model-minority stereotype, Ming felt that admitting his academic failure would cause his family to lose face (be ashamed). In the end, Ming’s refusal to seek help for his academic difficulties perpetuated his academic problems and left him feeling isolated and depressed.

Stacey J. Lee, “Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype: Voices of High- and Low-Achieving Asian American Students.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, vol. 25 (p. 421)

On the other hand, there is also research showing that English proficiency can be irrelevant to academic excellence. In San Diego, researchers “found that the lowest grades of all were earned by students with English as their native language, while the grades of white, Hispanic, Filipino, and Asian immigrants who were just becoming fluent in English were always higher than their U.S.-born counterparts” (Divoky 220). These researchers came to the conclusion that immigrants and refugees “outperform native-born American students regardless of language handicaps” (220). It is important to note, however, that this research does not account for the individual students’ motives and/or personal pressures for high levels of academic achievement.

Densho. Sunday School. 1948-1954. Courtesy of Frank C. Hirahara Collection, Oregon Nikkei Endowment, photo by photographer Frank Hirahara.

AAPI students are not learning school subjects alone. Foreign-born AAPI students are frequently in the process of becoming used to an American environment, while U.S.-born AAPI students are grappling with their own cultural heritage. Language and cultural experiences play a crucial role in Asian American students’ educational development, as “a large proportion of Asian students are either new immigrants or born in families of new immigrants, so these students require special attention to issues of adjustment and identity”  (Zhao and Qiu, 340-343).

Ultimately, for Asian American Pacific Islander students in the United States, education is not only a matter of academic performance, but a matter of negotiating one’s own developing cultural identity among outside pressures, whether parental aspirations for high academic achievement, attempts to fit in with an American/Western community, or one’s own desire to meet all of these expectations. The image of being a “model minority” obscures these struggles.

The seemingly superior academic performance of Asian students leads to the belief that they are ‘super kids,’ free from psychological and social problems. But Asian students are not trouble free. Despite their superior academic performances, even the successful ‘model minority’ students go through difficult educational and psychological experiences.

Yong Zhao and Wei Qiu, “How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement” (p. 342)

Pressures from family, peers, and one’s self is evidently harmful to mental health. As the “model minority” perpetuates the stereotype of well-to-do, naturally gifted, and unproblematic Asian American students, it is uncommon to hear about the distressed AAPI students who suffer from poor mental health resulting from these pressures, even though it is common they suffer from it more than other racial demographic groups. The majority of suicide victims at Cornell University since 1996 have been Asian or Asian American (Zhao and Qiu, 338), and although this statistic does not necessarily stem from AAPI student stress, mental health issues are undeniably related.

[...] at Cornell University, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims since 1996 have been Asian or Asian American, and a survey at Cornell in 2005 indicated that Asian-American / Asian students seriously considered or attempted suicide at higher-than-average rates (Ramanujan 2006). What is wrong with them? They should be content and happy. After all, they are the model for all other minorities and immigrants.

Yong Zhao and Wei Qiu, “How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement” (p. 338)

The topic of mental health arises in academic excellence, particularly with the AAPI student population, as they fall victim to extreme pressures from family, peers, and all of society who believes the “model minority” to be true. “The stereotype of ‘model minority’ and cultural reservations about counseling combine to hinder the educational and psychological needs of Asian-American students” (342). And as the concept of the “model minority” continues to exist, perpetuating the stereotype of Asian American students as academic superstars, so do its harmful impacts.

The Model Minority in Education = An Overachieving Reputation

The “model minority” makes a sweeping generalization of a diverse, multiethnic group of people with different socioeconomic and educational backgrounds as well as different intentions for immigrating to the United States. The “model minority” label disregards the mental hurdles and identity struggles of AAPI students, while establishing the default assumption of AAPI students to have a higher intelligence and/or academic aptitude that automatically raises their standards and expectations. In more recent times, there has been a reevaluation of the Asian American Pacific Islander student body as monolithic, academic geniuses, as researchers “propose that the academic excellence of Asian-American students may be a ‘forced’ phenomenon”  (Zhao and Qiu, 341).

[…] there is variability within groups in Asian American achievement. […] Asian Americans do not see themselves as being the same, they do not share a common attitude regarding future opportunities, they do not share a common attitude toward schooling. If we are to move beyond a stereotypic image of Asian Americans and understand the diversity of Asian American experiences, more ethnographic studies on Asian American students are necessary.

Stacey J. Lee, “Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype: Voices of High- and Low-Achieving Asian American Students.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, vol. 25 (p. 428)

For Asian immigrant families or AAPIs from immigrant families, education serves as a means for “upward mobility when other venues are closed, and Asian-American students choose to make a heavier investment in academic life than in nonacademic activities”  (Zhao and Qiu, 341). With language barriers, parental pressures, and societal expectations, Asian American Pacific Islander students feel a strong, outside pressure to perform well academically. This can be rooted in feeling responsibility, guilt, or obligation to family.

In conclusion, Asian-American emphasis on academic achievement seems to be either the will of individual students and their parents or a choice imposed by their social environments. Either way, the research unanimously suggests that Asian Americans academic excellence is really a matter of ‘choice,’ not a matter of biological imperative.

Yong Zhao and Wei Qiu, “How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement” (p. 341)

The concept of the “model minority” poses as a barrier to understand that Asian Americans have different ethnicities, nationalities, languages, cultural values, and socioeconomic statuses that invariably cause dynamic changes to one’s academic performance. Apart from understanding that Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are not a monolithic racial community with a single “Asian” narrative, they must individually be acknowledged to improve their experiences and adjustment to the United States. In so doing, we can break apart from the black-white binary of the linear American story and reevaluate it as one that is multiethnic and multicultural, with respect to the Asian American diversity within the United States.




Sources / References

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Lee, Stacey J. “Behind the Model-Minority Stereotype: Voices of High- and Low-Achieving Asian American Students.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, 1994, pp. 413–429. JSTOR, <>.

Museus, Samuel D. Asian American Students in Higher Education. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Ng, Jennifer C., et al. “Contesting the Model Minority and Perpetual Foreigner Stereotypes: A Critical Review of Literature on Asian Americans in Education.” Review of Research in Education, vol. 31, 2007, pp. 95–130. JSTOR, <>.

Ngo, Bic, and Stacey J. Lee. “Complicating the Image of Model Minority Success: A Review of Southeast Asian American Education.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 77, no. 4, 2007, pp. 415–453. JSTOR, <>.

Pang, Valerie Ooka, et al. “Asian American and Pacific Islander Students: Equity and the Achievement Gap.” Educational Researcher, vol. 40, no. 8, 2011, pp. 378–389. JSTOR, <>.

Petersen, William. Success Story, Japanese American Style." New York Times Magazine, January 9, 1966, 20–21, 33, 36, 38, 40–41, 43. <>.

Zhao, Yong, and Wei Qiu. “How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement.” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 90, no. 5, 2009, pp. 338–344. JSTOR, <>.