The Need for Data Disaggregation

How communities can use data to help minority subgroups succeed.
October 31, 2017
The U.S. DoE declared the importance of disaggregating data on student minority subgroups to help them succeed. David Kidd
Data-Driven Race-Informed

Cambodian poet Princess Moon writes “at a young age, we are all taught the act of disappearing.”

Princess Moon grew up in Lowell, MA, home to generations of the Cambodian diaspora that are still struggling to gain an economic, social and political foothold. In 2015, the city of 110,000 made history by electing the first Cambodian-American to a state legislature in the country. But even as the city makes great strides in urban redevelopment, filling mills with artists and lofts, poverty persists.

I grew up less than 15 miles away from Lowell, in a medium-sized upper middle-class suburb with good schools and little diversity. I was one of a handful of Indian, Chinese and Japanese-American students in my class. All of us went on to graduate from college. Studying international relations and economics in 2007, current events were dominated by the “Asian Miracle” and the financial crisis and recovery that followed. We were stereotyped as "model minorities" and in many outward ways, we embodied it. But those stereotypes are myopic and detrimental to the growth and development of the many subgroups that fall under the umbrella of "Asian American."

Professor Peter Kiang is the director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He has been raising awareness about the underserved and under-researched Asian American subgroups such as the Cambodian refugees. He, along with many of his colleagues, have been calling for data disaggregation to improve Asian American and Pacific Islander data quality.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Request for Information (RFI) “to gather and share information about practices and policies regarding existing education data systems that disaggregate data on subgroups within the Asian and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Island (ANHPI) student population” so that educational systems and institutions could then “use those data to improve their ability to respond to the unique needs and issues that might exist for these subgroups.”

Although 711 comments were received in response to the RFI, major challenges exist as many state, local and higher education systems do not disaggregate data unless it is required. And this is a problem, especially if education is to serve as a way out of poverty and people are being overlooked. The Asian American population is growing four times faster than the U.S. population as a whole, and income disparities are growing. The inequality among Asian Americans is greater than among white Americans.

A 2014 report by Karthick Ramakrishnan and Farah Z. Ahmad of the Center for American Progress analyzed this issue, showing that even though Asian Americans have the highest median household income of any race and ethnicity according to the U.S. Census, the gap is significant with Asian Indians at $95,000 and Bangladeshi at under $47,000. Cambodians are also near the bottom at $53,700.

Asian Americans bring a richness of linguistic, culinary and artistic diversity to the nation. We are a major source of wealth, ideas and community. We also represent people in need of investments in education, health, housing and welfare. We are an integral part of the innovation that drives business and government forward. But without disaggregated data, many will continue to disappear in the numbers.