Korean Americans’ Challenges in Education

Cultural Competence

Korean Americans are a unique group, which has long been a part of the United States. Due to their ability to suburbanize easily and innate transnational behaviors, Korean Americans manage to take advantage of their cultural landscape to success at assimilating in the U.S. Although the group is rapidly growing, there is still a lack of knowledge regarding its attitudes, values, and beliefs. Firstly, it is crucial to acknowledge that Korean Americans are a group, which is exceptionally family and collective-oriented (Kim & Wolpin, 2008). Unlike Americans with attitudes shaped by the values of the West, Korean culture tends to stay away from individualistic pursuits and centers in the formation of an in-group identity, which is often regarded as the extension of the self (Kim & Wolpin, 2008). Thus, it is apparent that Korean values are shaped under the influence of Confucianism, which emphasizes collectivism, submission to authority, and rather high expectations in education and professional development.

In regards to the family structure, Korean Americans regard the elderly population highly and treat old people with the utmost respect. Therefore, family organization is based on the group’s beliefs in clearly defined hierarchal patterns. Fathers have the primary authority, with wives expected to be fully obedient to husbands, and children to submit to their parents (Kim & Wolpin, 2008). Finally, the most crucial aspect of the family structure for Korean Americans is the submission of self to family, serving as an extension of collective vs. individual values established under Confucianism.

As for beliefs and practices, it is important to recognize that most Korean Americans identify as Protestant. According to the statistics presented in the report published by the Pew Research Center (2012), 71% of Korean Americans are Christian, with only 10% being Catholic, which makes the share of Protestants in the group 61%. Another 6% of Korean Americans are Buddhist, which leaves a substantial number of Korean Americans (23%) unaffiliated (Pew Research Center, 2012). The report also notes that Asian Americans, in general, are less likely to be influenced by religious practices, pray, or attend religious services on a regular basis than Americans. Korean Americans are much more likely to hold conservative religious views and favor the literal interpretation of the Bible compared to Asian American Christians who are not Korean (Pew Research Center, 2012). Thus, Korean Americans manage to stand out among other Asian Americans in their religious attitudes and practices.

Lastly, when it comes to the social roles and attitudes of Korean Americans, it is especially important to mention that education is regarded as the main path to facilitating social mobility and achieving respect in the community. There is a focus on academic achievement in Korean culture, which translates into the typical aspirations of young Korean Americans as well as their parents. They are often willing to sacrifice a lot to help their children attend a good school and succeed in any way through tutoring and after-school lessons. This emphasis on education affects the choice of the neighborhood for the majority of Korean immigrants who select their home based on its proximity to a top-tier educational setting.

Linguistic differences between Korean and English are another aspect, which can affect pedagogical approaches deployed to assist Korean Americans. There are distinct characteristics both Korean and English have, particularly in regards to sentence structure, phonology, and morphology. For example, Korean is an agglutinative language, whereas English analytic. While the word order in English is fixed, Korean grammar emphasizes free word order. This leads to it being harder for Korean Americans to translate their ideas, which are full of implicitness in their native tongue, into easily-digestible and strictly ordered sentences Germanic speakers are more accustomed to.

In terms of speaking, it is crucial to note that Korean and American communication styles are very different. For instance, Koreans emphasize their respect for the elderly by using specific phrases to address people who are even a year or two older than them. Their communication style is also more indirect and less intense than an American one (Merkin, 2009). Unlike U.S. Americans, Korean Americans are much more communicatively apprehensive and less non-verbally immediate (Merkin, 2009). This is the result of their high-context culture, which can lead to the creation of ambiguous messages by Korean Americans. Furthermore, while English is founded upon the notion of self, Korean is based entirely on the social context. In order to speak properly to a stranger, one first has to gather as much as possible on the nature of the relationship between oneself and another speaker. The communication style will change drastically depending on the stranger’s age, job, social status, and so on.

Equity Pedagogy

The primary issues, which stem from the unique challenges posed by Korean Americans in education, are generalization and ignorance. While the first problem is rather complex and requires a multi-level solution, the second one is based entirely on the lack of Korean American representation in the media and academic curricula. It is impossible for teachers to find proper strategies to deal with Korean American students if they lack basic understanding of these children’s cultural background, values, and attitudes.

After extensive training in cultural sensitivity and a series of parent-teacher conferences, a teacher may gain the appropriate knowledge to implement efficient tactics of teaching and communicating with Korean American students. For instance, they can adapt their communication style to fit the Korean model and minimize the use of direct commands, while still managing to assert their authority as an older individual and a teacher. In addition, they can initiate group activities that fit into the Korean American value systems, while encouraging Korean American students to engage in projects designed to provide them with the tools to deploy a more individualistic approach to certain tasks. After all, it is apparent that students from families who have just immigrated to the United States May find it challenging to adapt to the practices deployed in the American education system. Korean culture of hierarchy, order, conservatism, and family values is most likely to clash with the American focus on individualism, informality, and directness. Thus, Korean students may feel alienated as they are taught informally and expected to become friends with teachers who are untouchable figures of authority in their understanding.

In regards to generalization, it is dangerous to lump Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and other Asian individuals into one group. In regards to education, it perpetuates stereotypes about the group as a whole based on the achievements of some of its members. For instance, high academic performance is attributed to Asian Americans primarily due to the cultural values and financial opportunities of rich Korean, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants. Filipino, Vietnamese, and other less fortunate, low-income individuals of Asian descent are usually compared against these wealthy, privileged Asians under the prism of the artificially created “model minority.”

Another important strategy is to challenge the invisibility of Korean Americans in education. After all, the majority of students of Korean descent struggle to separate themselves from the umbrella of an Asian American identity, which does not truly reflect the values and beliefs of Korean Americans (Hsieh & Kim, 2020). Educational environments should be inclusive and acknowledge cultural differences of their students not only by separating them into strictly defined groups such as Black, Latino, or Asian. To facilitate the optimal classroom experience for Korean Americans, educators should encourage conversations and discussions centering around ethnical distinctions between students and an array of social and cultural features each child may have that originate from them. Although this solution can be considered rather generic, school staff may go further and emphasize the distinction between students who are typically labeled as Asian Americans and encourage them to embrace their differences, which is a great way for teachers to educate themselves on their students’ culturally shaped attitudes and views as well.

Apart from that, it is exceptionally important for schools to diversify their teaching staff. According to the recent statistics, 79% of public school educators are White, and only 2% are Asian (National Center for Education Statistics, 2021). This makes it harder for Korean American kids to find figures of authority who are relatable and understanding in the academic setting these students are a part of.

Curriculum Reform

The primary issue with the existing curricula in most U.S. public schools is the erasure of Korean Americans, particularly in Social Sciences. Thus, it is important to emphasize the history of South and North Korea, as well as the background for mass immigration of Koreans to the United States and the struggles associated with their attempts at acculturation and Westernization. In regards to Korean history, the class could spend more time on such events as the fall of the Goryeo Kingdom, the rule of the Joseph Dynasty, Russo-Japanese War, the Korean War, and some of the modern history of both South Korea and North Korea. The curriculum could benefit greatly not only from the addition of and more emphasis on these events but also from the class discussions surrounding the Korean history timeline, focusing on the cultural and social features of Koreans. Furthermore, to facilitate a more nurturing and open classroom environment, Korean American students could be encouraged to speak up about the events in Korean history under the prism of traditionally Korean attitudes, views, and beliefs.

In addition to this, generalization pertaining to Asian Americans could be battled through dedicated lessons on the distinctions between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures, which are so often put under one umbrella. For instance, while both Japan and Korea function off the foundation, which is collectivism, the Korean collective structure is more family-centered, while the Japanese one is society-centered. Moreover, what distinguishes South Korea from others is the fact that it is a homogenous nation, which unlike China and Japan, does not have several languages and dozens of dialects.

Social Justice

Based on the aforementioned analysis of the issue of generalization Asian Americans are often affected by, it is evident that the U.S. education system has a long way to go in terms of teaching towards social justice for Korean Americans. Apart from taking time to learn about and discuss Korean history in class and putting emphasis on including cultural sensitivity in the field of Social Sciences, it is crucial to move away from the model minority stereotype affecting the Asian community in academic settings (Chow, 2017). Teachers should be encouraged to view students as individuals and not push the harmful narrative of exceptional academic achievement onto any Asian student.

Instead, classrooms should actively engage in practices to battle generalization as it pertains to Asian Americans, including discussions, forums, anti-racism workshops, as well as events dedicated to Korean American cultural and social characteristics. Schools could initiate Asian American history weeks, cultural exchange fairs and performances, seminars with acclaimed members of the Korean American community, and so on. Each student should be encouraged to explore their own cultural differences, values, and attitudes to then share them with the class, which is a great way to educate one another on the issues surrounding the education system’s lack of inclusivity of Korean Americans and ethnic diversity.

In conclusion, it is evident that Korean Americans should be regarded as a separate group and tested in accordance with the values they hold and the issues they face, particularly in regards to education. Teachers have to be culturally sensitive and aware of their students’ background and its implications. For instance, those of Korean descent are usually family-centered and collectivist, emphasizing hierarchal relationships and often using an indirect communication style. In order to cater to these students, while simultaneously encouraging the rest of the class to educate themselves on the cultural differences among their peers, it is crucial to invest in projects and initiatives targeted at delving deeper into Korean history, culture, and the experiences of Korean Americans.


Chow, C. J. (2017). Teaching for social justice: (Post-) model minority moments. Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, 12(3).

Hsieh, B., & Kim, J. (2020). Challenging the invisibility of Asian Americans in education. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Sciences, 42(2), 95-103.

Kim, E., & Wolpin, S. (2008). The Korean American family: Adolescents versus parents acculturation to American culture. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 15(3), 108-116. Web.

Merkin, R. S. (2009). Cross-cultural communication patterns – Korean and American Communication. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 20. Web.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Characteristics of public school teachers. Web.

Pew Research Center. (2012). The rise of Asian Americans: Chapter 7: Religious affiliation, beliefs and practices. Web.

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ChalkyPapers. "Korean Americans' Challenges in Education." April 13, 2023. https://chalkypapers.com/korean-americans-challenges-in-education/.