Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2007 Issue »

    Book Review: Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap among Korean American Youth by Jamie Lew

    Sohyun An
    New York: Teachers College Press, 2006. 133 pp. $23.95.

    Asian American students have often been stereotyped as “model minorities” who do well in school, are educationally triumphant, and have no academic difficulties. Their achievement has commonly been attributed to characteristics of “Asian culture,” such as hard work, respect for teachers, and living up to parental expectations (De Vos, 1973, 1980; Mordkowitz & Ginsberg, 1987; Sung, 1987). Many Asian American scholars and activists dispute this perspective, pointing to both cultural differences and variability in achievement gaps among Asian American student populations (Goyette & Xie, 1999; Jo, 2004; Lee, 1996, 2005; Lei, 2001; Noguera, 2004; Olneck, 2004; Schmid, 2001). They have further pointed out the political biases and negative consequences inherent in the model minority myth. This myth stifles the voices of Asian American youth who do not meet this image of success, and it blames Blacks or Hispanics for their low academic achievement while buttressing meritocracy and individualism as factors that contribute to success in school and in the larger society. Thus, the myth masks racism and other structural barriers that prevent minority students from achieving to high standards in school and ultimately helps maintain the status quo of White hegemony (Jo, 2004; Lee, 1996). A growing body of literature and research on Asian American children and education has been focused on debunking unfounded and often harmful beliefs and stereotypes about Asian American students, thus contributing to a better understanding of Asian American youth and their school experiences.

    Jamie Lew’s Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap among Korean American Youth is a welcome addition to such academic efforts. This book is based on a three-year case study, during which Lew interviewed two groups of second-generation Korean American youths in New York City. The study was comprised of forty-two students who were attending an elite magnet high school and thirty high school dropouts who were attending a community-based general educational development (GED) program. By comparing these two starkly different groups of Korean American youths, Lew effectively challenges the model minority myth. The inclusion of Korean American high school dropouts in Lew’s study is in itself counterevidence to the Asian American stereotype. Moreover, the Korean high school dropouts’ poignant stories of failing to receive educational resources and support from their families and schools underscore the importance of both the cultural and structural factors that contribute to Asian academic excellence.

    Besides challenging the model minority myth, this book makes a valuable contribution to the extant body of theory and research on Asian American education and immigrant education. Previous scholarly works (Gibson, 1988; Matute-Bianchi, 1986; Ogbu, 1991; Suárez-Orozco, 1991; Zhou & Bankston, 1996) have identified structural factors such as immigration history, econ­omic context, and opportunity structure as significant determinants of Asian American achievement. However, few scholars have directly addressed social class and its effects on Asian American students’ schooling.1 Lew’s book adds to the existing literature on social class and Asian American educational outcomes, not by focusing on Asian Americans who have already gone on to higher education but by focusing on those who are navigating the high school experience.

    More specifically, this book complements a popular contemporary ­theory of Asian American achievement that underscores the importance of social capital and co-ethnic networks of immigrant communities in determining immigrant students’ academic success (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Zhou & Bankston, 1996). According to this theory, Lew writes, “post-1965 Asian immigrants and their children are able to achieve in school and gain economic opportunities as a result of their ethnic economy and ties to immigrant networks” (p. 5). She engages with the theory by asking, “Who benefits more from the co-ethnic economy and ethnic networks?” and “How does class variability within an ethnic economy impact second-generation outcome?” (p. 5). Lew also furthers our understanding of Asian American achievement by focusing on the agency of students, a concept that is often missing in theories of social capital and Asian American achievement. In inviting Korean American youth to be the primary research informants and in carefully listening to their voices, Lew found that these youth were by no means passive recipients of educational resources from their parents or ethnic communities. Instead, they were active agents who negotiated, adapted to, or resisted their parents’ and communities’ values and expectations. In addition, this book identifies schools as a significant structural determinant in either hindering or facilitating the academic achievement of Asian American youth, unlike previous conceptions of the role of schools as neutral. Lew vividly illustrates the influential institutional characteristics of schools by comparing two high school contexts — a resource-rich, elite magnet school that many high-achieving, middle-class Korean American students attended, and a resource-poor, low-performing neighborhood public school from which many working-class Korean American youths dropped out.

    Coupled with these theoretical strengths, the voices of Korean American high school dropouts makes this book more persuasive. In other scholarly efforts to provide alternative explanations for the model minority stereotype, Asian American youth who are low-achieving, failing, or dropping out have often been overlooked. Given increasing research that indicates many Asian Americans do not fit the stereotype, it is important to understand their stories in order to give them the attention and support from schools and from the larger society that they need and deserve. The voices and experiences of these students, in tandem with those of successful Asian American students, can contribute to a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of Asian American achievement.

    Moreover, the inclusion of the poor, low-achieving Korean American youth in the study complicates Ogbu’s (1987) dichotomy of voluntary/involuntary minorities.2 According to Ogbu, children of immigrants (i.e., voluntary minorities) are supposed to do well in school due to attributes such as having a dual frame of reference, little or no history of oppression in the U.S., and belief in the American Dream. Yet the Korean American high school dropouts in Lew’s study were more similar to involuntary minority youth who, according to Ogbu, adopt an oppositional cultural frame of reference and reject schooling as an effective means of achieving economic mobility. Struggling with racism and poverty, Lew’s Korean high school dropouts had complex ideas about the model minority myth. While they bought into the model minority stereotype by associating wealthy and studious Korean American students with Whiteness, they resisted what they considered to be emulating the dominant stereotype by dissociating themselves from their successful ethnic counterparts and instead identifying with Blacks and Hispanics. By including voices from the other side of the model minority myth, this book effectively dispels a simple assumption: that Asian American students look up to Whites and try to be “near Whites” who believe in meritocracy and individualism (Lee, 2005; Okihiro, 1994). Lew shows that these unsuccessful youth had a critical, if not sophisticated, idea about the dynamics of race and class in U.S. society. Even some wealthy and studious Korean American youth were keenly aware that “despite their middle-class economic status, they might not necessarily be accepted racially as Americans” (p. 85).

    The theoretical and methodological strengths of Lew’s research lead to interesting and significant findings, which are carefully developed and cogently weaved into the extant literature on Asian American education cited throughout the six chapters of the book. As a whole, Lew’s findings powerfully support the main argument of the book: Class, race, and school contexts play a role in Asian American children’s achievement in school. The first chapter introduces the research this book is based on and sets the stage for the following chapters. Specifically, Lew establishes the context of her research by discussing post-1965 Asian immigration, the changing demographics among and within the Asian immigrant population, and the model minority discourse of Asian American students, and she provides a critical review of relevant work on Asian American achievement and immigrant education. Despite their being no explicit mention of the book’s intended audience, the clarity of Lew’s writing makes the book appropriate for a broader audience beyond academia. However, some key concepts or theories she uses, such as network orientation or social capital theory, warrant detailed definitions and explanations that may be helpful for readers who are new to the field. Another limitation of the introduction concerns the relative silence surrounding the researcher’s identity. Given that the book primarily draws on in-depth interviews with immigrant youth about highly sensitive topics such as racial/ethnic identity, school failure and success, intergenerational conflicts, and experience with racism and poverty, a reader might want to know more about the researcher’s background and how researcher subjectivity might affect the process and product. Such a discussion would not only have increased the integrity and transparency of the book, it also would have helped beginning researchers understand how the author dealt with subjectivity issues in research and writing.

    Two sections of the book examine the effects of structural factors, including class, race, and school, on Asian American achievement. Part One focuses on the educational strategies adopted by Korean immigrant parents, while Part Two concentrates on those adopted by Korean American youth. A notable finding in Part One is that ethnic resources and networks in the Korean immigrant community under study were divided along class lines, and only those who had money and time had easy access to and could benefit from the ethnic resources available to support their children’s schooling. For first-generation immigrants with “limited English skills and knowledge of the U.S. education system” (p. 8), both low-income and middle-class Korean parents struggled to help their children excel in school. In comparison, native-born, White, middle-class parents may be more comfortable assisting their children with homework and engaging teachers in conversations. However, Lew also finds that affluent Korean immigrants were able to mitigate these limitations and they facilitated their kids’ academic achievement by using their money and social networks in co-ethnic communities. For example, they hired private bilingual tutors or college counselors for their children or sent them to private, tuition-based afterschool academies within the ethnic community. The working-class Korean immigrant parents were unable to provide such advantages because of their low wages and long work hours.

    However, Part One does have a notable limitation. Since the primary research informants were the children and not their parents, Lew’s discussion of the effects of social class on parental involvement, although thorough in documentation and thought-provoking in analysis, relies exclusively on ­Korean American youths’ reported perceptions of their parents’ educational strategies. Although it is unclear if or how the parents’ stories might differ from the students’, inclusion of Korean immigrant parents in the study might have strengthened triangulation of the data and the ensuing analysis.

    In Part Two, Lew examines educational strategies adopted by Korean American youth, with a specific focus on students’ peer networks and the institutional characteristics of the schools they attend. Far from being passive, as much of the broader literature suggests, Korean American youth from both middle-class and working-class families constructed and utilized their own peer networks to address their needs (e.g., career guidance or advice on dealing with intergenerational conflicts with immigrant parents). One of Lew’s critical findings is that the functions of youth-based peer networks were also remarkably different along class lines. According to Lew, while the wealthy and studious Korean American students at the magnet high school used their peer networks to get information about college admission or private afterschool academies in order to improve their academic achievement, the networks of poor Korean high school dropouts helped one another to access low-wage jobs within the ethnic community or to pursue other nonacademic options, such as enlisting in the army. The influential effects of school contexts are also vividly illustrated in Part Two. Compared to the “successful” Korean American students from the elite magnet school, the Korean high school dropouts consistently spoke about “being isolated and alone” and about having to navigate through the education system in low-performing, poorly resourced, uncaring urban public schools without much adult guidance. Many of these dropouts said that they did not receive adequate counseling from schools, and some confided that they were “pushed out” or advised by schoolteachers or counselors to leave school and take the GED exam, mostly without being informed of how a GED is different from a high school diploma.

    Missing from the insightful analysis of the educational strategies Lew describes in Part Two is a discussion about the differences that may exist between 1.5- and second-generation Korean American youth. While Lew explicitly states that the 1.5 generation was considered second generation in her research, some scholars and researchers point out that significant differ­ences exist between the two immigrant generation groups in terms of racial/ethnic identities, educational aspirations, academic achievement, etc. (Lee, 2005; Palmer, 2001; Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Valenzuela, 1999). For example, Palmer (2001) found that 1.5-generation Korean students were different from second-generation students in their ethnic identity development. That is, 1.5 students were caught between the two cultures, feeling not ­fully connected to either Korean or U.S. cultures. Lei (2001) found that second-generation Hmong youth were more “Americanized” than 1.5-generation Hmong students, putting relatively little value on studying hard or on maintaining ties to their own ethnic cultures. How did these possible differences play out among the Korean American youth interviewed for the book? Was there any notable difference between the 1.5 and second generations in the case of Korean American youth with regard to educational strategies, network orientations, academic achievement, racial/ethnic identities, or relationships with parents or co-ethnic communities? If yes, how were they different? If not, how would their similarities be explained? These questions are worthy of investigation, but unfortunately remain unasked in the book. Also, some readers might want to see special attention given to exceptional cases, such as Korean American high school dropouts from middle-class families or high-achieving Korean American students who come from low-income families and attend the elite magnet high school. Such participants were in fact present in the research: 36 percent of Korean American students at the elite magnet high school were eligible for reduced-cost/free lunch, and 13 percent of Korean American high school dropouts had at least one parent who owned his/her own business. Examining why and at what point there is a seemingly contradictory pattern between socioeconomic background and academic achievement might have offered a more nuanced and complex picture of Asian American academic achievement.

    Lew concludes the book with concrete recommendations on how to involve immigrant parents and ethnic community members in schools in order to foster immigrant students’ academic success across class lines. Underscoring the fact that Asian and other immigrant parents are not passive or uninvolved in their children’s schooling, Lew urges schools to provide adequate bilingual assistance and translated materials so that immigrant parents can be more actively involved in their children’s schools.

    Despite the shortcomings noted above, this book is an outstanding addition to the literature on immigrant and Asian American education. The book powerfully demonstrates the significant effects of class, race, and school contexts on the educational experiences of Asian American youth. By doing so, this book effectively challenges the model minority stereotype and its associated cultural explanation of Asian American achievement. The volume provides a more realistic understanding of Asian American students and their school experiences, complementing the extant theories and research on Asian American achievement. This book is a worthwhile read for those who have an interest in better education for Asian American students in American schools.

    Sohyun An is a doctoral candidate in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she studies Asian American education and social studies/history education. An is currently writing her dissertation on Korean American youths’ perspectives on U.S. history and the relationship between historical understanding and young people’s sociocultural backgrounds.


    1. Vivian Louie (2004) explored these issues in a comparative study on second-generation Chinese American college students.

    2. Ogbu (1987) identified two separate groups of minority students: immigrant or voluntary minorities, and castelike or involuntary minorities. Ogbu defines voluntary minorities as people who have moved more or less voluntarily to the United States and involuntary minorities as people who were originally brought into the United States or any other society against their will, such as through slavery, conquest, colonization, or forced labor.

    De Vos, G. A. (Ed.). (1973). Socialization for achievement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    De Vos, G. A. (1980). Ethnic adaptation and minority status. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 11(1), 101–124.

    Gibson, M. (1988). Accommodation without assimilation. New York: Cornell University Press.

    Goyette, K., & Xie, Y. (1999). Educational expectations of Asian American youths. Sociology of Education, 72(1), 22–36.

    Jo, J. (2004). Transforming identity. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    Lee, S. (1996). Unraveling the model minority stereotype. New York: Teachers College Press.

    Lee, S. (2005). Up against Whiteness: Race, school and immigrant youth. New York: Teachers College Record.

    Lei, J. (2001). Claims to belonging and difference. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

    Louie, V. (2004). Compelled to excel: Immigration, education, and opportunity among Chinese Americans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Matute-Bianchi, M. E. (1986). Ethnic identities and patterns of school success and failure among Mexican-descent and Japanese-American students in a California high school: An ethnographic analysis. American Journal of Education, 95, 233–255.

    Mordkowitz, E. R., & Ginsberg, H. P. (1987). Early academic socialization of successful Asian American college students. Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 9, 85–91.

    Noguera, P. A. (2004). Social capital and the education of immigrant students: Categories and generalizations. Sociology of Education, 77, 180–183.

    Ogbu, J. (1987). Variability in minority school performance: A problem in search of an explanation. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 18, 312–334.

    Ogbu, J. (1991). Immigrant and involuntary minorities in comparative perspective. In M. Gibson & J. Ogbu (Eds.), Minority status and schooling (pp. 184–204). New York: Garland.

    Okihiro, G. (1994). Margins and mainstreams. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

    Olneck, M. (2004). Immigrants and education in the United States. In J. A. Banks & A. M. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 381–403). New York: Macmillan.

    Palmer, J. (2001). In the midst of two cultures: 1.5 generation Korean Americans’ acculturation process and ethnic identity development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Iowa, Iowa City.

    Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. (2001). Legacies: The story of the second generation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Schmid, C. (2001). Educational achievement, language minority students, and the new second generation. Sociology of Education, 74, 71–87.

    Suárez-Orozco, M. (1991). Immigrant adaptation to schooling: A Hispanic case. In M. Gibson & J. Ogbu (Eds.), Minority status and schooling (pp. 37–61). New York: Garland.

    Sung, B. L. (1987). The adjustment experience of Chinese immigrant children in New York City. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

    Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York: University of New York Press.

    Zhou, M., & Bankston, C. L., III. (1996). Social capital and the adaptation of the second generation: The case of Vietnamese youth in New Orleans. In A. Portes (Ed.), The new second generation (pp. 197–220). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
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    Summer 2007 Issue


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