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Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap Among Korean American Youth

reviewed by Vichet Chhuon - July 05, 2006

coverTitle: Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap Among Korean American Youth
Author(s): Jamie Lew
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807746940, Pages: 133, Year: 2006
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Korean Americans are often viewed as a model minority who transition seamlessly through the educational pipeline. This group is often situated within a larger Asian American aggregate that is perceived as uniformly successful in school. For Koreans and other immigrant minority populations, structural factors, such as access to quality schooling and community co-ethnic networks, act as significant institutional variables for students accumulation of social capital for pursuing academic success (Stanton-Salazar, 1997; Zhou & Kim, 2006). In Asian Americans in Class: Charting the Achievement Gap Among Korean American Youth, Jamie Lew deconstructs the experiences of Korean American students to highlight how structural factors shape academic aspirations and outcomes. She also examines how schools operate as key institutional agents for perpetuating social and economic inequities. Lew states early on that:

[O]ne cannot effectively analyze the schooling aspirations and achievement of second-generation Korean and other Asian American youths without taking into account key structural and institutional factors, such as their parents socioeconomic backgrounds and educational level, the advantages and limitations of ethnic networks, and the students access to institutional resources in schools. (p. 6)

To examine these factors, Lew drew primarily upon qualitative interview data from two groups of Korean American students in New York City: one attending a public magnet high school (MH), the other enrolled in a community-based GED program (dropouts). MH students were generally high achieving and from middle-class families, while the dropouts were mostly from lower socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds. Lews book finds that class differences are an important feature of Korean American communities and that they manifest themselves in varying levels of institutional access and hindrance.

Lew juxtaposes popular cultural explanations of Asian Americans educational performance with compelling structural factors, including socioeconomic status, school quality, and co-ethnic networks. She spends very little time discussing Korean cultural values; instead, she focuses on how differing levels of social capital attained through school and community relationships determine students academic outcomes. Lew asserts that Korean American students need to do more than simply internalize their parents values. Her interviews revealed that all participants and their parents valued education and acknowledged its utility, but the lower class SES families had substantially less economic and social resources for supporting their childrens schooling. As such, they relied heavily on their local schools to socialize and educate their children.

Unfortunately, schools attended by the dropouts were typically located in impoverished communities, had less qualified teachers, and employed counselors with little experience working with immigrant minority populations. Moreover, a lack of adult concern characterized the dropouts school experiences. They described their school culture as entrenched in low expectations and mutual disrespect between teachers and students. While all MH students were assigned a college advisor in their junior year, the dropouts were often encouraged by their counselors to leave school to pursue more realistic goals, such as the GED. This data confirms that teachers and counselors occupy a critical position in the lives of low income and minority students (Stanton-Salazar, 1997): Such institutional authority figures have the potential to play counter-hegemonic roles in the lives of immigrant minority children and to help marginalized groups acquire social capital to better their chances at success (Stanton-Salazar, 1997).  

Asian Americans in Class also details how such success was made more likely for the MH students who accumulated social capital from co-ethnic networks in their communities. The financial resources of the MH families helped afford their children academic support and college information that their immigrant parents were unable to provide directly. Middle-class Korean families often paid for after-school tutoring and enrichment programs that guided their childrens academic futures. MH students entrance into their elite high school and subsequent matriculation at prestigious universities can be linked to the supplemental skills, SAT preparation, and social capital to which they had access through co-ethnic community organizations. Other research has also found that supplementary education in Korean communities plays a significant role in helping Korean American students overcome the barriers associated with their immigrant status to excel in school (Zhou & Kim, 2006). Lews work contributes to these ideas another dimension of co-ethnic networks that centers around the way class divisions shape the distribution of social resources. For example, parents of the working-class dropout students often worked as menial laborers in the ethnic economy, whereas families of MH students tended to be the entrepreneurs who employed them. While MH students utilized co-ethnic networks to pursue mainstream occupations, the dropouts typically used community resources to follow in their immigrant parents footsteps and assume low skill-level employment in the ethnic economy. Thus, the dropouts used community resources to adapt to their lower class status, while MH students used co-ethnic ties to advance their long-term academic goals.

Despite these differences, MH students and dropouts were similar in that they both faced racism and prejudice as part of their schooling experiences. Social capital attained through school and community networks, however, helped MH students cope with barriers associated with their immigrant minority status to persist and succeed in school. For SES Korean American students, marginalization due to hegemonic whiteness at school was compounded by poverty and lack of social capital. Consequently, the dropouts often coped with their challenges by adopting an oppositional frame of reference when dealing with school. Lews data is particularly interesting because it expands upon John Ogbus cultural-ecological model of minority school performance. Lew posits that voluntary minority groups, such as Korean American students, can adopt an oppositional frame of reference characteristic of involuntary minorities, given their limited access to opportunities. In this way, Asian Americans in Class challenges the stereotype of Korean Americans as a monolithic group whose inherent cultural values and voluntary minority status propel them to success in school. The voices of the dropouts suggest that, in fact, they are acutely aware of and frustrated by their class position, particularly in light of those prevalent stereotypes of Asian American students.

One negative aspect of this book, however, is the absence of a more intricate discussion of the consequences of the model minority stereotype. Other research has found that Asian American students often benefit from the model minority label (Conchas, 2005), but Lew fails to address the ways in which MH students position themselves within this stereotype. Ostensibly, the dropouts felt disadvantaged by the model minority view of Korean American students, but Lew might have examined the ways MH students have benefited from this over-generalization at the dropouts expense.

Nevertheless, Lews Asian Americans in Class contributes a great deal to the discussion of the Korean American education experience by explicating the relationship between ethnic communities, social capital, and Asian American academic achievement. This relatively short book (131 pages) has considerable value for courses in Asian American studies, immigrant and minority schooling, and the sociology of education because Lews findings push educators to reevaluate their assumptions of minority students. The interaction of immigration, race, and class is complex and is treated as such in this book. Lews work helps demonstrate that the strength of cultural values is often only activated in conjunction with access to institutional opportunities.


Conchas, G.Q. (2006). The color of success: Race and high-achieving urban youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Stanton-Salazar, R.D. (1997). A social capital framework for understanding the socialization of racial minority children and youth. Harvard Educational Review, 67(1),1-40.

Zhou, M. & Kim, S.S. (2006). Community forces, social capital, and educational achievement: The case of supplementary education in the Chinese and Korean immigrant communities. Harvard Educational Review, 76(1).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 05, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12573, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:09:35 PM

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About the Author
  • Vichet Chhuon
    University of California, Santa Barbara
    E-mail Author
    VICHET CHHUON is a doctoral student in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research interests include achievement motivation, Asian American education and immigrant schooling.
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