Thursday, April 10, 2014

Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap by Gilda L. Ochoa

Gilda Ochoa’s new book, Academic Profiling, is based on intensive ethnography and over 100 interviews with students at Southern California High School (SCHS). Ochoa sets out to understand how racial stereotypes and institutional practices affect the educational opportunities of Latino and Asian students.

This book reminds me of another excellent tome: Ann Arnett Ferguson’s Bad Boys. Two important differences are that Ochoa’s book focuses on Latinos and Asians instead of African Americans, and that Ochoa’s book is set in a high school instead of an elementary school. The two books remind me of one another in terms of the careful attention to gender and race as well as the balanced discussion of theory and ethnographic and interview data.

Academic Profiling focuses on SCHS – a high school where the students are 46% Asian, 43% Latino, 7% White, 2% African American, and 1% Native American. In contrast to the student population, about half of the teachers and administrators are White. This highly diverse high school makes an excellent setting for understanding contemporary educational disparities. Whereas much of the focus in educational literature has been on the black-white achievement gap, we know much less about the distinctions between Asian and Latino students.

At SCHS, Asian and Asian American students are over-represented in the International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) classes. In the elite IB track, there is only one Latino student – the remaining students are Asian. And, in the AP classes, only about five percent of the students are Latino. Ochoa sets out to explain this “gap” as well as to consider the discourses that students, staff, and faculty use to discuss these disparities.

Ochoa argues that internal disparities within the school are a consequence of “academic profiling” – a process whereby teachers and counselors are more likely to place Asian American students in more rigorous courses than Latino students. This process creates a situation where Asian American students are privileged academically and Latino students are privileged socially.

This book is unique insofar as the author looks simultaneously at Asians and Latinos, and also takes an intersectional perspective. Ochoa takes class and gender seriously in her analyses by considering the roles gender and socioeconomic status play at SCHS.

Ochoa’s interviews with teacher reveal that teachers often attribute Asian American success to parental involvement and assume that Latino parents do not value education. This is the case even when Latino parents actually invest significant time and energy in their children’s education. For example, many of the Latino students explained that their parents had learned that SCHS is a high-performing school and drive their children across town each day so that they can attend this school. The presumption that Latino parents are not invested in their children’s education prevents teachers and administrators from seeing the significant investments and sacrifices Latino parents are actually making.

Ochoa points out that staff and faculty at SCHS give Latino and Asian students different messages about their academic abilities as well as different forms of support. These racialized messages and structured inequalities exacerbate disparities between the two groups.

The disparities are most notable between the elite IB students and everyone else. The IB students are given preferred access to counselors, allowed to roam the halls without question, and rarely subject to the school’s disciplinary tactics. In contrast, nearly all of the students who are subject to disciplinary actions are Latino. This reminds me of Bad Boys, insofar as Ferguson found that black boys were much more likely to be suspended than any other group at the school she studied.

The disparities are notable enough that Asian students often notice the differential treatment. One Asian American student pointed out that when Asian students are late to class, they get a pass whereas teachers often send Latino students to the office for tardiness. In contrast, Asian students are held to higher academic standards. Another student pointed out that the high expectations for Asian students mean that teachers will nag them more if they don’t perform exceptionally well. In contrast, when Latino students get a relatively good grade, teachers congratulate them.

With respect to this, Ochoa notes that “academic profiling does not leave space for students to be understood as individuals with their own interests and capabilities” (129). An interview with an Asian student renders this evident. Student Nathan Yi tells the interviewer:

“[The teacher] expects Asians to have a higher standard. I hate that kind of stereotyping …. Just because I’m Asian doesn’t mean I have to get all straight As and study all the time.” (130)
Asian students are often able to perceive the inequalities. Student Becky Han points out:

“I’m Chinese, and lots of people pressure you to do good, and they want you to succeed more. It’s kind of not fair to other races. I think everyone should be pushed, but we get pushed more than Mexicans, Blacks, and Whites.” (166)
Latino students also resist the typecasting. Student Dolores Anaya told the interviewer:
“Latinos in general in this school are not encouraged enough … I don’t think they’re expected to do much.” (225)
At the end of Academic Profiling, Gilda Ochoa tells the reader that she presented her findings at the school and describes the reactions of the staff and faculty. Whereas some of the staff and faculty were receptive to her analysis and encouraged by her suggestions, others were clearly resistant.

Ochoa explains this resistance through Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s term analyses of color blind racism. She points to three aspects of this framework: 1) faculty blamed the disparities on Latino versus Asian culture (cultural racism); 2) not everyone wants to go to college; and 3) any changes should be small, as it is not the school that reproduces inequality. In general, most staff and faculty chalked up the disparities to cultural differences and denied that they had any role in reproducing the inequalities. This is a classic example of “racism without racists.” Of course, the teachers and administrators would deny their role in reproducing inequalities, given the stigma associated with being a racist in this country.

It is admirable that Ochoa presented her findings to the school, and it is evident that this action did change some hearts and minds. It is also not surprising that she could not convince everyone of the need for change.

In the end, educational institutions reproduce societal inequalities. There is always some room for change, but it would be extraordinarily hard to operate a school outside the boundaries of the persistent inequalities between Latinos and Asians as well as to overcome deeply entrenched inequalities between these two groups.

It is not solely through education that we will overcome societal inequality. Nevertheless, studies such as this one are needed in order to demonstrate how educational institutions reproduce societal inequalities as well as provide some ideas for meaningful change.

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