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A Structural Analysis of Success and Failure of Asian Americans: A Case of Korean Americans in Urban Schools

by Jamie Lew - 2007

In this article, the author examines how variability of socioeconomic backgrounds affects parental strategies and academic achievement among Korean American youths. The study compares experiences of high- and low-achieving Korean American high school students in New York City urban schools: 1) academically achieving students attending a competitive magnet high school; 2) high-school dropouts attending a community-based GED program (General Educational Development test for high school equivalency diploma). Although Korean Americans have been homogeneously touted for their entrepreneurial success and middle-class status, this study points to the socioeconomic variability within co-ethnic networks, and examines how the difference of social class backgrounds impacts educational strategies employed by the two groups of parents and their access to social capital. The two groups of Korean students, with different socioeconomic backgrounds, operate under different parental strategies of education, as well as gaining different sets of resources from their first-generation parents, co-ethnic networks, and schools. Using Korean Americans as a case study, the findings illustrate the significance of structural factors of social class, social capital, and school context when accounting for academic achievement among Asian Americans in urban schools.


In the last few decades, the Asian American population nationwide has undergone a dramatic increase in number and diversity. During the 1940s, Asian Americans living in the United States numbered some 250,000, a mere 1 percent of the U.S. population (Hing, 1993). In 1990, that number had risen to 7.3 million with over 13 different ethnic populations under the Asian category (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the Asian population has increased to 11.9 million, totaling 4.2 percent of the population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001).

Despite the changing demographics, portrayal of Asian Americans has remained overwhelmingly homogeneous and essentialized. Often referred to as a model minority, Asian American children have been noted for their academic achievement and economic mobility. The most common explanation used to describe such success has resorted to cultural discourses focused on homogenized notions of Asian values such as work ethic, education, and nuclear family (Mordkowitz & Ginsberg, 1987; New York Times, 1966; Sung, 1987; U.S. News and World Report, 1966). However, such cultural explanations ignore important structural or class issues; overlook the diverse backgrounds and experiences between and among the Asian American groups; pit Asian Americans against other minority groups; and ignore children who are poor, failing, or dropping out of school (Fong and Shinagawa 2000; Kao, 1995; Kiang and Kaplan, 1994; Lee, 1996; Lew, 2003, 2004, 2006; Louie, 2001, 2004; Pang and Cheng, 1998; Park et al., 2003; Suzuki, 1977; Woo, 2000).

One of the least-examined structural factors regarding academic achievement of Asian Americans is the role of class, and how it impacts parental strategies, access to schooling resources, and accumulation of social capital. That is, how do socioeconomic backgrounds affect variability of educational achievement among children of Asian immigrants? How do middle-class Asian parents, compared to working-class Asian parents, gain different resources from schools or from co-ethnic communities? In what ways do variability of economic, social, and cultural factors affect the success and failure of Asian American students?

This research begins to answer some of these questions. By using Korean Americans as a case study, it illustrates how school performance of Asian American children changes and adapts to given social and economic contextsfamilies socioeconomic backgrounds, schooling resources, and economic opportunities within co-ethnic networks. This research compares the schooling experiences of two groups of Korean American youths in New York City urban schools (see Table 1). One group represents academically achieving students who attend a competitive magnet high school, while the other group represents at-risk high-school dropouts attending a community-based GED program (General Educational Development test for a high school equivalency diploma). The study examines how Korean American high-school students, from different socioeconomic backgrounds and schooling contexts, gain resources from their immigrant parents co-ethnic networks; moreover, it examines different educational strategies employed by the two groups of parents and how this process affects their childrens educational attainment.


Students Backgrounds


Magnet High



Number of respondents












1.5 Generation




2nd Generation




Single Parent Household




Eligible for Reduced Lunch




Lives in Queens, New York




At least one parent works in ethnic economy




At least one parent owns their own business




At least one parent works for co-ethnic entrepreneurs




Table 1: Students Backgrounds

While Korean Americans have been homogeneously touted for their entrepreneurial success and economic mobility, this study points to the socioeconomic variability within co-ethnic networks, and examines how the difference of social class backgrounds impacts educational strategies employed by the two groups of parents. This study argues that first-generation parents and co-ethnic networks are extremely important for second-generation Korean American youths; however, it is also critical to distinguish socioeconomic differences within Korean American communities and who benefits more from such enclaves (Lew, 2004, 2006). For instance, this study shows that while most of the parents of the academically achieving students at the magnet high school are entrepreneurs, most of the parents of the high-school dropouts are employees of co-ethnic entrepreneurs and do not own their own businesses. A greater percentage of Korean high-school dropouts, compared to the magnet high-school students, come from single-parent households, which further limits their family income. In addition, the dropout students compared to the academic students also attended urban schools that were wrought with limited institutional resources. Therefore, in such different social and economic contexts, the two groups of Korean American students receive different sets of structural support from their families, co-ethnic networks, and schools (Lew, 2006).

The findings show that the magnet high-school students, by being embedded in strong first-generation co-ethnic networks, gain access to important information on schooling and colleges. That said, how the information is actually used to provide educational support for the students also depends on the socioeconomic backgrounds of the parents. For instance, although both groups of parents value education, the magnet school parents are more likely to send their children to private tuition-based after-school academies in order to provide them with additional schooling and college counseling. These academies, called hag won, mostly located in Korean ethnic enclaves, provide tutorials on school subjects and standardized exams, as well as bilingual college counselors. These resources provide institutional support for the children, as well as important bilingual support for the immigrant parents who are limited in English language skills and knowledge of the U.S. educational system. Through such educational support, the magnet high-school students received important college and career counseling, as well as tutoring on the school subjects and standardized exams throughout their high-school years. In contrast, the low-income Korean high-school dropouts rarely attended hag won since their parents could not afford the tuition. Moreover, these students had to work after school to compensate for their limited family income. Consequently, their parents predominantly relied on their childrens schools for educational and counseling support. However, the Korean high-school dropouts in this study attended urban schools with limited educational resources to effectively assist them in school.

The study shows how middle-class parents at the magnet high school, compared to working-class parents of the high-school dropouts are more likely to overcome schooling and language limitations while advancing educational opportunities for their children. It further illustrates how Asian families class position may affect the nature and quality of their childrens education, and how the cumulative effects of social, economic, and cultural resources to overcome limited schooling resources are deeply implicated in reproduction of social inequalities. This comparative study notes the importance of considering variability within Asian ethnic groupstheir socioeconomic backgrounds, parental strategies, and schooling resourcesin order to understand how academic achievement and aspirations are integrally linked to important social and economic contexts (Lew, 2006).


An overwhelming body of research shows that structural factors of family income, parental education level, and access to schooling resources greatly impact students academic achievement and economic mobility: In the aggregate, middle-class students, compared to poor and working-class students, are more likely to achieve in school, attend better quality schools, and graduate from college (Anyon, 1997; Apple, 1993; Bourdieu, 1977; Bowles and Gintis, 1976; Coleman, 1987 Jencks, 1972; Kozol, 1991, Orfield, 1992; Willis, 1977). Conversely, high-school dropouts are disproportionately those students from low-income families, attending poor ineffective schools, and facing institutional barriers in and outside of schools (Ekstrom et al, 1986; Natriello et al, 1990; Rumberger et al, 1990; Whelage and Rutter, 1986).

Research on parental involvement indicates that middle-class parents have a great advantage over working-class parents in terms of the availability of resources and cultural capital with which to assist their children in schooling. Parents of lower socioeconomic status, compared to parents of higher socioeconomic status, are less able to provide structural and economic resources to their children, gain cultural and institutional support from schools and personnel, and be actively involved in their childrens home and school work, despite the desire for their children to excel in schools (Astone and McLanahan, 1991; Epstein, 1990; Lareau, 1987, 2003; Louie, 2001, 2004). For instance, Louie (2001, 2004) showed that middle-class Chinese parents compared to the working-class Chinese parents were more likely to provide educational resources and guidance for their 1.5- and second-generation children. Lareaus work on cultural capital (2003) illustrates how middle-class white and black parents, given their higher occupational status, as well as access to important cultural capital at home, work, and schools, engage in a pattern of concerted cultivation (pg. 38), or highly structured educational activities that helps them learn academic skills and cultural discoursesa process that further helps them excel in and outside of school. On the other hand, while the working-class white and black parents also have educational aspirations for their children, they could not readily provide such structured educational activities, as a result of economic limitations and an inability to mobilize their cultural capital into institutional resources for their childrens schooling. As such, working-class parents often resort to and rely on the teachers and schools to take care of their childrens schooling. However, poor children often attend schools that are limited in important institutional resources necessary for school achievement, such as access to guidance counselors, teachers, and other community members who are integrally connected to mainstream economic opportunities and institutional resources that are pivotal for academic achievement and social mobility. Moreover, schools are less likely to value the cultural capital of poor and working-class parents and children (Croninger and Lee, 2001; Fine, 1991; Lareau, 1987, 2003; Lew, 2004, 2006; Stanton-Salazar, 2001).

The salience of class on school achievement is important to note, particularly in light of the growing number of studies on social capital and immigrant communities. Research shows that social networks from ethnic entrepreneurship, local churches, and community organizations create job opportunities, reinforces values that promote education, and sanctions trust and norms that are conducive to academic achievement for children of immigrants. That is, immigrants who join a well-established co-ethnic community gain a range of moral and material resourcesa process that has served as a prime avenue for mobility for second-generation youths.   (Light and Bonacich, 1988; Portes and Rumbaut, 1996; Portes and Zhou, 1993; Zhou and Bankston III, 1998). Compared to any other immigrant groups, children of Asian immigrants, in particular, have been cited as those who consistently achieve academically and attain social mobility as a result of their parents accumulation of social capital and strong co-ethnic networks (Portes and Zhou, 1993; Zhou and Bankston III, 1998).

However, in the midst of these important studies, there is a limited understanding of class variability within co-ethnic Asian communities and how this factor impacts second-generation childrens access to social capital, educational resources, and parental guidance (Lee, 2004; Lew, 2004, 2006; Louie, 2001, 2004). As this research indicates, class variability within the Korean American communities does impact whether and how the parents and students gain access to social capital, as well as educational resources from ethnic communities and schools toward achieving in school.

Notwithstanding the benefits of co-ethnic networks for Asian immigrants and their children, researchers point to the economic limitations of ethnic solidarity and argue that theories of enclave economy should take into account class differences among the immigrants within the ethnic enclaves themselves (Abelmann and Lie, 1995; Kwong, 1996; Sanders and Nee, 1987). Sanders and Nee (1987) point to the limitations of economic and social mobility in the ethnic enclaves and argue that the benefits of the enclave economy apply mostly to entrepreneurs, or immigrant bosses, but not necessarily to co-ethnic immigrant workers. The economic success of many Korean Americans has been attributed to their middle-class urban backgrounds as well as their high educational and occupational levels prior to immigration (Kim 1981; Light and Bonacich, 1988). However, researchers show that despite the benefits of co-ethnic networks, it is also important to address varied socioeconomic backgrounds, poverty, racism, and other institutional barriers faced by Korean American communities (Ablemann and Lie, 1995; Hurh and Kim, 1984; Lee, 2004; Lew, 2004, 2006; Min, 1996).

When addressing issues of social capital in school context, it is also important to distinguish variability of class and network orientation within ethnic and racial groups. If social capital derives from social relationships, then different groups of students and parents also have varying degrees of advantage based on class, race, and institutional discourses within the network. Thus, social networks are implicated in the reproduction of inequality (Bourdieu, 1977; Lin, 2000; Stanton-Salazar, 1997, 2001; Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch, 1995). For middle-class white students, since their family members have connections and ties to middle-class institutional resources and opportunities, parents themselves often act as a valuable institutional resource. In other words, the students are embedded in middle-class and privileged networks in their families and communities. However, working-class minority and immigrant students need to face and traverse the boundaries of racial minority, language acquisition, and low socioeconomic status in order to access middle-class institutional resources and economic opportunities (Bourdieu, 1977; Lareau, 1987, 2003; Lew, 2006; Phelan and Davidson, 1993; Stanton-Salazar, 1997, 2001; Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco, 1995, 2001). Moreover, poor minority students living and attending schools in low-income isolated communities are literally cut off from capital, networks, and institutional resources that are needed to gain jobs, college admittance, and opportunities for moving into the mainstream economy (Anyon, 1997; Noguera, 2003; Orfield and Eaton, 1996).

Ogbus (1987) research on race and achievement further illustrates the significance of historical racial barriers that minority students face and their cultural frame of reference in response to such institutional barriers. He argues that for involuntary immigrants, such as African American students, a low school performance is a form of adaptation or a survival strategy to endure historical and structural barriers such as inferior schooling, job ceiling, and racial discrimination. In order to resist these societal limitations and barriers, African Americans form an oppositional cultural frame of reference and oppositional social identity to dominant white society. He argues that this oppositional cultural frame of reference leads some African American students to attribute characteristics leading to academic success as white peoples domain, and, therefore, resist excelling in school to avoid being labeled as acting white. Notwithstanding the significance of Ogbus theory, the findings in this research on Korean American students complicates the dichotomy of voluntary and involuntary immigrant groups, and points to the significance of social-class division within groups, as well as school context that may explain variability of school achievement (Lew, 2004; 2006). Other emerging studies also show that minority students may be adopting and negotiating a set of different cultural repertoires depending on the given social, economic, and school context (Butterfield, in press, Carter, 2003; OConner, 1999; Tyson et al., 2005). For instance, Carter (2003) draws a distinction between dominant and non-dominant cultural capital, and argues that the low-income black youths may be negotiating both of these forms of cultural capital as a way to maintain status-positioning in schools and communities. That is, the role of race, class, and culture on school achievement among minority students may be more nuanced and multidimensional than what has been previously argued.

Despite these important studies, experiences of Asian American children remain either static or invisible. Moreover, the success of Asian Americans is often compared and contrasted with the failure of other minorities, without adequately taking into account important structural factors and schooling resources to frame their experiences. As Slaughter-Defoe and colleagues (1990) have argued, research design of family and educational achievement of African American and Asian American children has been historically influenced by societal stereotypes. Meaning, while research in education predicts educational failure for Blacks and Hispanics, it predicts educational success for Asians and Whites. As they have poignantly argued, research design and theoretical framework should challenge the stereotype of various ethnic and racial groups, and critically examine variations across as well as among ethnic and racial groups.


This study draws upon participant observation, a background survey, document analysis, and open-ended interviews. The survey was used to gather information about students place of birth (and, if born in Korea, their length of residence in the United States), place of residence, age, gender, names of high schools attended, grade level completed, bilingual ability, affiliation with the Korean ethnic community, parents level of education and occupation, and eligibility for the reduced cost and free lunch program. The interviews were audiotaped and lasted between one and three hours. A total of 72 Korean American students were interviewed: 42 from the academic magnet high school and 30 high-school dropouts from the GED program. Both 1.5-generation (born in Korea but raised in the U.S. at least since the age of nine) and second-generation (born and raised in the United States) Korean American students were interviewed (see Table 1).

The magnet high school is one of three math and science magnet public high schools located in New York City. It is a nationally recognized magnet high school, noted for its academic excellence (The Division of Assessment and Accountability, 2000). The GED program is based in a nonprofit organization located in Queens, New York. Its education and outreach programs provide students and adults with counseling, tutoring, classes on the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes, and GED preparatory classes for high-school dropouts. All of the Korean students in the GED program have officially dropped out of public high schools in New York City and have been referred to the program by teachers, counselors, parents, community members, and peers.

Although most of the students in both groups live in Queens, New Yorkthe borough with the largest number of Korean Americans in the New York metropolitan areathey come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Compared to the Korean high-school dropouts, the magnet high-school students came from higher socioeconomic level backgrounds with a greater number of two-parent households. For instance, 36 percent of the academic students were eligible for reduced and free lunch, compared to 80 percent of the dropout students. Furthermore, when we considered parental occupation within the ethnic enclaves, there was an important distinction. Although a total of 60 percent of the academic students had at least one parent working in ethnic economy, 53 percent of them owned their own businesses while only 7 percent worked for co-ethnic entrepreneurs. On the other hand, a total of 80 percent of the dropout students had at least one parent working in the ethnic economy, but only 13 percent of them owned their own businesses while 67 percent of them worked for co-ethnic entrepreneurs. In assessing the accumulation of economic resources and parental strategies employed in assisting their childrens education, it is important to note the differences in socioeconomic backgrounds and occupational status.



Magnet High-School Students

The Korean students at the magnet high school, compared to the Korean high-school dropouts, maintained closer ties to their co-ethnic networks at home, school, and community. Many of the Korean students at the magnet high school were acquaintances or friends prior to entering high school because their parents were members of the same Korean churches or community organizations. For instance, Mary and Kim had been members of the same Korean church for five years. Now that they were attending the same high school, they were becoming even closer friends and spoke fondly about their church experiences. When I asked them why their families went to a Korean church, Mary proudly spoke of social and religious support that the ethnic church provided for her family. She explained that because she has been attending the same church with her parents since she was a child, her parents church friends represented an extended or surrogate family. She explained that her parents attend church not only for religious reasons but to develop meaningful friendships that border on familial relations:

My dad is involved in choir and church. My parents look for not somebody they can just gossip with and discuss the newest video or what just happened in Korea, but basically bonding and being like a family because we dont really have family here. Well, we do, but they are in Ohio and California and not near the area, so my parents look to their friends for bonding and being sort of like a surrogate family and being an extended family.

Similarly, another student explains how members of the Korean community are closely interconnected both at home and at school:

The Korean community of my age group, everyone knows everyone in some way. Like, either youre friends with someone that knows this other person . . . its like everything is sort of related into one big circle. . . . I started hanging out with Koreans, and then more Korean friends came along . . . church especially, tae kwon do, neighborhood, they are all part of this big circle.

When I asked the Korean students, What do you learn from your parents and their friends in Korean churches? they explained that within these ethnic churches, first-generation parents and their friends emphasize foremost the importance of achieving academically, learning the Korean language, and maintaining close ethnic ties. Susan is a seventeen-year-old student who was born and raised in Queens, New York. She has attended the same Korean church with her parents since she was in middle school. She believed that education was extremely important and that all Korean and Asian parents expected their children to achieve academically. She confided that her Asian American friends in the high school and at the Korean church experienced similar expectations from their parents. She explained, Doing well in school is really important, you know. All of my friends who are Asian or Korean, their parents are all strict. They all want their kids to get 99 average and go to a good college&They definitely want above average. Students educational aspirations were integrally connected to their parental expectations as well as their own belief that excelling in school was extremely important for their future.

Susans active participation in her Korean church reinforces ties to co-ethnic networks that perpetuate certain social norms and values conducive to school success. It is what Coleman and Hoffer (1987) refer to as a closed functional community, where social networks provide children with access to multiple sets of parents, who reinforce the values and attitudes that are conducive to school success. In this respect, conformity to norms and expectations in a social network is an important attribute of social capital (Coleman and Hoffer, 1987). Through the structure of a closed intergenerational social-support network among parents, community members, and peers, academically focused Korean American students received multiple sources of social pressure to succeed in school.

Korean American High-School Dropouts

Similar to the Korean magnet high-school students, the Korean high-school dropouts also believed that education was important. They explained how their parents wanted them to graduate from high school and to attend college. For instance, Tom dropped out of high school at 16 years old. He has been out of high school for two years and is looking for work. He says, I think that education is important. You should learn the things that you need to learn. Say like you have a job, and its computer programming. Then you need to learn math and computer and stuff like that. When I asked him what his mother expected of him, he replied, Well, I already know. I dont think that I am stupid. I mean, I know that I need to have an education. . . . She really wants me to graduate high school and go to college.

Although both the magnet high-school students and the high-school dropouts believed in the importance of education, in comparison to the magnet high-school students, the high-school dropouts did not maintain close ties to their parents or their parental co-ethnic networks. For instance, when I asked one of the Korean high-school dropouts to describe his relationship with his parents, he commented, I have no idea what my parents do. We dont go to church or anything, and I am never home, so I really dont know what to say about them.

The Korean dropouts were not able to give ready examples of discussions they had with their parents or guardians about their education, future plans, or the kinds of careers they aspired to. Students often spoke of having to take care of the situation themselves and said they were alone in making academic, career, and financial decisions. Unlike the magnet high-school students, who focused on shared interests and common goals with their parents, most high-school dropouts focused on differences and cultural gaps between them and their parents. As one student commented:

I dont look up to my parents. I think they work hard so I like that about them but we are very different. Our views are very different. Its like there is nobody I can look up to. No peers, no friends, no counselors or teachers.

When the high-school dropouts spoke of attending a Korean church, they rarely stayed at the same church longer than a few months and if they did, they did not attend the same church as their parents; therefore, the Korean high-school dropouts lacked strong social capital and ties to co-ethnic networks that sanction social norms which might be beneficial for their academic success (Coleman and Hoffer, 1987).


The magnet high-school students, by being embedded in first-generation parental networks, gained important information on schooling and colleges that helped them achieve academically at school. For instance, the Korean magnet high-school students often learned about specialized magnet high schools through their parents friends at church, work, and community organizations. By being embedded in such co-ethnic networks, they were more likely to learn about elite high schools and to know how to prepare for the entrance exams. As one student confided, My parents expected me to apply to this high school since I was in elementary school. They heard about it through their friends at work and then they told my uncle and aunt. Now my cousins are applying this year. Similarly, many students explained how their parents first-generation co-ethnic networks helped them learn about elite high schools and maneuver within the public school system.

That said, parents of magnet high-school students, compared to the parents of the high-school dropouts, were able to capitalize on and implement the schooling information to benefit their children because of their economic resources. For instance, the magnet high-school parents sent their children to private after-school academies (hag won) in their ethnic communities, in order to help them prepare for high school and college (Portes and Rumbaut, 1996; Portes and Zhou, 1993). These academies offer classes or tutorials on high school or college entrance exams, the Korean or English language, and various academic disciplines at all grade levels, as well as bilingual college counselors. The parents of the magnet high-school students, by maintaining strong co-ethnic networks, learned about the tutors and counselors through co-ethnic peers at church, neighborhoods, and work. The magnet high-school students explained that upon entering middle school, they went to hag won to prepare for magnet high-school entrance exams. Now that they are preparing to go to college, many students attended hag won to prepare for college entrance exams, and some students even hired private counselors who helped them with the college-application process.

All of students at the magnet high school are officially assigned to a college counselor during their junior year. The school counselors will examine the students school records, GPA, standardized exam scores, and other extracurricular activities to determine which colleges are most suited for them. It is interesting to note, however, that in addition to these important resources available to them at the high school, many Korean American students also had the option to seek help from private bilingual college counselors who were mostly hired by their parents. Since many of the Korean parents were first-generation immigrants with limited English skills and knowledge of the U.S. college system, they could not readily engage with the schools college counselors who were monolingual English speakers. Consequently, by hiring private bilingual college counselors, the Korean parents found a way to be actively involved with their childrens college-application process despite their limited English skills (Lew, 2006).

For instance, Mia is in 11th grade and is preparing for college exams. She explains that while she has the option to seek a college counselor at her public magnet high school, she prefers to go to her private Korean college counselor. She explains how the Korean college counselor, hired by her parents, helps her with the application process and provides college-counseling advice:

I have Ms. B [school counselor], but Ive only seen her once, and never again. My parents got me a Korean college counselor and weve been meeting with him. My parents friends knew of the counselor and a lot of people from this school go to him. He knows what standards are for students to specific colleges. He does everything . . . he does the college process, tells us what SAT scores I need, which college is most suitable, financial aid, and deadlines. He will proofread college essays.

In addition to providing invaluable advice on schooling and the college-application process to Korean American students, the bilingual counselors educated the first-generation immigrant parents on the U.S. educational system. The magnet high-school students explained that these private bilingual counselors allowed their parents, who are limited in knowledge of the English language and the U.S. educational system, to be actively involved in their schooling. Therefore, the Korean magnet parents also compensated for the linguistic and structural limitations of the magnet high school itself. As one student explains:

Teachers in the school and students should have a tighter relationship but its hard to find a teacher who will go out of their way to do things for you. It helps that he [Korean counselor] is also Korean because he can understand what is good for me and my parents. He meets with my parents and me separately, and then meets us together. He tells me what my parents want me to do, and then tells me what he thinks I should do. And its good because he can communicate with my parents better than a white person.

Many of these private bilingual Korean tutors and counselors provide individualized guidance to the Korean American students on college and career opportunities, which many immigrant parents are unable to provide. These private counselors also strengthen the linguistic and cultural bridge between immigrant parents and their American-born-and-raised children. For children of immigrants who are often straddling multiple linguistic and cultural discourses, this form of bilingual support is pivotal for achieving academically (Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch, 1995; Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco, 1995, 2001).

Korean American High School Dropouts

As illustrated in the previous section, the magnet high-school parents, in addition to gaining access to schooling information through their co-ethnic networks, were financially able to convert this information into concrete structural support for their children, in the form of sending their children to tuition-based after-school academies in Korean ethnic enclaves. However, in the case of low-income Korean high-school dropouts, along with limited social capital that hindered the high-school dropouts from gaining important information about high schools and colleges, they were also limited economicallyan important factor that prevented their families from translating their educational aspirations into concrete educational support.

For instance, the low-status Korean high-school dropouts had rarely attended hag won or received after-school tutoring and counseling outside of their own high schools. The parents of the high-school dropouts, many of whom were single mothers, had only a single source of income and did not have the economic resources to readily hire private tutors and counselors for their children. Moreover, most of the Korean high-school dropouts could not attend hag won since they had to work after school in order to contribute economically to their households.

Many of the Korean dropouts worked in menial jobs for co-ethnic entrepreneurs, as cashiers, manicurists, or valet parking attendants at Korean restaurants and nightclubs while attending high school, and continued to do so after dropping out. In contrast, while some magnet high-school students had to work, it was usually to help out with their own parents businesses, where they often had the option to work only on weekends or not at all if they had to attend hag won after school or prepare for important school exams.

Harold dropped out of high school two years ago and is working as a parking attendant for a Korean restaurant. He explains that he gets paid seven bucks an hour off the books and the job provides a steady source of income. He worked as a parking attendant while going to school and continues to work full time now that he is out of school. But he admits that it is not enough to make a living and is contemplating going into the army so that he can afford college in the near future. Similarly, Jim admits that living with his relatives, who are also supporting their own children, may not be a viable option in the near future. Since his government assistance stopped at the age of eighteen, he is planning to join the army so that he can obtain a free college education and career opportunities:

So I have this pressure but it wouldnt have been as great if I still got money from    

the government. I used to get money from my aunt and uncle to support me but that doesnt come any more since I am 18 now and so there is even more pressure put on me. Its not just me. There are my cousins and there are six people in the house so right now, I am gonna have to start working soon. I am planning to go to the Marines this summer and learn what I have to do there and then go to college after that.

Some of the Korean high-school dropouts, as a result of their limited socioeconomic backgrounds, had to resort to joining the military in order to continue their education. Compared to the parents of the magnet high-school students, the parents of the high-school dropouts could not readily afford to send their children to after-school academies, and, in many cases, to college. Because of their limited English skills, knowledge of the U.S. educational system, and access to bilingual institutional support for their childrens schooling, the low-income parents resorted to their childrens high schools and teachers to educate their children. However, their neighborhood high schools, mostly located in poor urban communities, were limited in institutional resources, such as teachers and counselors who could adequately address the needs of the students. In addition, many dropouts moved and changed schools readily because of their parents precarious employment status, as well as their own failing grades and search for a better quality school. However, as they moved from one ineffective urban school to another, their feelings of isolation from and mistrust of teachers and counselors only increased (Lew, 2006).

Throughout the interview, the Korean dropouts explained that their educational experiences were often marked by mistrust and poor relationships with schoolteachers and counselors. Students consistently mentioned the lack of academic rigor, low expectations, and limited academic and social support from teachers and counselors. A high school dropout remarked:

The thing about New York schools, as to why I lost the passion to learn, or whatever, is because first of all, I dont like the teachers, how they treat you. . . . I mean, a good teacher can make a bad subject worthwhile. And I came here and its not like that. They all think you are ignorant and they talk to you like you are ignorant and honestly, it just pisses me off. I didnt want to stay there and personally, I dont like being looked down upon and seen as if I am stupid. And thats very offensive to me so I just left. And its not just seeing it happen to me, I dont like seeing it happen to others too.

Some students further confessed that their counselors advised them to leave high school and encouraged them to take the GED exam instead. Students were often misinformed about the difference between a GED and a high-school diploma, and were not adequately informed about their choices. Their comments indicate how low-income minority students attending poor urban schools with limited resources may be pushed out of schools (Fine, 1991; Lew 2004, 2006). One student explained:

When I met my counselor, she said I should take the GED and not go back to school. I thought the GED and high-school diploma were the same. I wanted to leave the school and when I left, I felt better.

From the students perspective, counselors represented authority figures who did not care about their welfare. Their comments illustrate the significance of gaining access to caring teachers and counselors who can provide them with important schooling information, as well as access to institutional resources in and outside of schools (Croninger and Lee, 2001; Lew, 2004, 2006; Valenzuela, 1999). One of the high school dropouts remarked:

The counselor was the one who kicked me out. First of all, I am not supposed to get kicked out . . . a couple of my friends got her for counseling and she was really mean. All of them got kicked out. . . . She will give me attitude. Shell say, Oh, you again? Just leave the school. Just like that. Thats why I decided to leave. I dont care.

These institutional barriers in school faced by Korean high-school dropouts could not be compensated for or overcome, in part as a result of their parents limited socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as their limited skills in English and knowledge of the U.S. educational system. Consequently, the high-school dropouts were left alone to take care of their schooling without much support from their home, schools, and communities. Students said that speaking to their parents and other adults would have been futile and that there was not much they could do to help. The account below illustrates how students with limited institutional support in their families and schools are often alone in making academic and career decisions. A student recounts:

 It took me a month to decide and it was really hard. Four years you know, down the drain. My uncle and aunt dont even know I dropped out of high school. . . . They asked me, arent you graduating this year? And I said, I will do what I have to do to graduate. You will be satisfied with that, right? And she said, Yeah. And so, I decided to take the GED. I dropped out in January.

 As this study reveals, different sets of parental strategies are integrally based on the parents socioeconomic backgrounds and on whether the students have strong ties to parental co-ethnic networks that can provide important information about schooling. While both groups of first-generation Korean parents faced linguistic and cultural barriers in assisting their children with education, the Korean parents from the magnet high school were more likely to hire private tutors and send their children to after-school academies in Korean ethnic enclaves as a way to compensate for their limited English skills and knowledge of the U.S. educational system. Therefore, the parents of the magnet high-school students not only learned to access important schooling information from their co-ethnic networks, but they were able to utilize and implement this information to benefit their children because of their economic resources. That is, the magnet high-school parents, with their social capital and economic resources, were more likely and more able to translate educational values and aspirations into academic achievement for their children (Lew, 2006).


When addressing the academic achievement of Asian American students, researchers have cautioned against the portrayal of Asians as a homogeneous group of immigrants who are uniformly achieving academic success by being embedded in a fixed set of cultural values stressing the benefits of education and a nuclear family. The model minority discourse paints Asian Americans as having a fixed ethnic experience, thereby overlooking the diverse sets of experiences and different socioeconomic backgrounds between and among the Asian American groups. Moreover, the cultural discourse, by upholding ideals of meritocracy and individual values, ignores important structural resources that all students need in order to achieve in school. Without critically examining the experiences and challenges of Asian American students who are at-risk or high-school dropouts, it would be easy to underestimate the economic and racial barriers that poor minority students face, as well as overlook institutional resources that they need in schools and communities to achieve academically.

 Korean Americans have often been referred to as a homogeneous group touted for their middle-class entrepreneurial success. However, it is critical to differentiate the socioeconomic backgrounds and limitations of economic opportunities within Korean ethnic enclaves. A comparative study of Korean American high-school students in different socioeconomic and schooling contexts illustrates the significance of socioeconomic variance within these enclaves and the limited co-ethnic support for low-income members. Although both groups of students believed in education, their ability to translate their aspirations into institutional support depended on economic and social support from their parents and from first-generation co-ethnic networks. Although most of the immigrant parents in both groups were limited in English language proficiency and knowledge of the U.S. educational system, the magnet high-school parents were more likely to be able to afford private tutors and after-school academies as a way to provide structural support for their childrens schooling. Despite their limited English skills and knowledge of school system, the middle-class parents actively intervened in their childrens education by hiring bilingual counselors who were able to assist their children and themselves in learning about the U.S. college and school systems. In the process, they also compensated for limited bilingual assistance at the magnet high school itself. The poor Korean parents, however, could not readily afford such private tutors or after-school academies and had little option but to resort to their public high schools to take care of their childrens schooling. Yet, given that most of the Korean dropouts were attending poor urban neighborhood schools with limited structural and bilingual resources, the Korean dropouts rarely received the necessary schooling and counseling support, which further increased their likelihood of dropping out of high school. This research challenges the stereotype of Asian Americans as a homogeneous group of model minorities who are uniformly achieving in schools: Instead, it reveals how Asian American students, depending on the changing socioeconomic and school contexts, receive different resources from their parents, co-ethnic communities, and schoolsa process that is deeply implicated in social reproduction of inequality.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 2, 2007, p. 369-390
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12795, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:21:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Jamie Lew
    Rutgers University, Newark
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    JAMIE LEW is assistant professor in the Department of Urban Education at Rutgers University, Newark.
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