Asian Parents Be Like Do Your Homework Wallpaper

Why do Asian American students outpace everyone else academically?

The most publicized attempt to answer that question — a few years ago, by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua — set off a controversy that rages to this day.

Chua’s answer, originally set out in a 2011 Wall Street Journal opinion article “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” was that “tiger mothers” were prepared to coerce kids into doing homework and practicing the piano, in part by calling them names. Chua (who’s latest book is “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America) held herself and her academically successful children out as examples.

But a new study published in the journal “Race and Social Problems” by two California scholars takes on Chua, suggesting that with all the economic resources at her disposal — she and her husband are Yale professors with highly-educated parents — her children’s success is just as likely the result of socioeconomic and cultural advantages, generally cited by scholars as the main reason some children do better than others.

The authors of “The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans” are Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian American Studies at the Univ. of California at Los Angeles, currently on leave at Nanyang Technological University, and Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at the Univ. of California at Irvine.

Scholar Min Zhou, the co-author with Jennifer Lee of a study about Asian American success. (Courtesy UCLA)

A better way to understand Asian American academic success, they write, is to look at families who don’t have resources and succeed nonetheless.

That is exactly what they’ve done. And their findings are pretty straightforward: Young Asian Americans have all kinds of good role models to emulate. Their communities and families make sure they get extra help when they need it. Their families, even on limited resources, manage to seek out and move to neighborhoods with good schools. And they aspire to success with specific goals in mind: medicine, law, engineering and pharmacy. And they aim for the best schools.

It’s not about coercion or some mysterious ethnic gift, they write. It’s about the way they view their horizons, with extraordinarily high expectations — so high that kids who don’t rise to the occasion feel like “black sheep” and “outliers.”

Zhou and Lee studied Chinese American and Vietnamese American communities in Los Angeles without a lot of financial resources or parental higher education — factors that tend to skew other academic studies of success. They focused on two groups: the so-called “1.5 generation” — foreign-born immigrants who came to the United States prior to age 13 — and second-generation families. They conducted 82 face-to-face interviews to get a picture of why these communities are doing so well in advancing their children through high school and college.

Here’s what they found: Although their means are limited, Asian families in the study choose neighborhoods carefully to make sure schools offer honors and advanced-placement courses. To do this, parents use the “Chinese Yellow Pages,” which the researchers describe as “a two-inch thick, 1,500-page long telephone directory that is published annually and lists ethnic businesses in Southern California, as well as the rankings of the region’s public high schools and the nation’s best universities.” They also make sure their kids get plenty of supplementary help such as tutoring.

These families have incredibly high standards, according to the study. If kids come home with a 3.5 grade-point average, parents are disappointed that it’s not 4.0 — and they show it.

If a child gets into, say, Cal State, the question is why they didn’t make it into Stanford.

If a son or daughter comes home and settles for a bachelor’s degree, they’re made to feel less accomplished because they don’t have a PhD.

Both groups in the study, Zhou and Lee reported, adopt a similar “frame for what ‘doing well in school’ means: getting straight A’s, graduating as valedictorian or salutatorian, getting into one of the top UC (University of California) schools or an Ivy, and pursuing some type of graduate education in order [to] work in one of the ‘four professions’: doctor, lawyer, pharmacist, or engineer. So exacting is the frame for ‘doing well in school’ that our Asian respondents described the value of grades on an Asian scale as ‘A is for average, and B is an Asian fail.’’’

Such high standards have positive and negative impacts, the researchers found.

If expectations are that high, many young people will try to meet them. They will get into Stanford and they will get that PhD.

The downside is that those who fall short — the ‘A-minus’ student’ — wind up feeling alienated from their ethnicity. In short, they feel less Asian and more, well, American.

They describe a young man named Paul who chose to be an artist instead of following the path prescribed by his parents. He called himself “the whitest Chinese guy you’ll ever meet.”

They tell of one young woman they interviewed, Sarah, who when asked whether she feels successful compared to her friends who are not Chinese, pauses “as if she had never considered that comparison before and finally replied, ‘If I were to look at my white friends of that same age range, yes I’m more successful. If I were to look at all of my friends, yes, I would say so.’”

They write:

Sarah is not unique in this regard; none of the 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese respondents considered measuring their success against native-born whites (or native-born blacks for that matter). Rather, they turn to high-achieving coethnics as their reference group — a finding that highlights that native-born whites are not the standard by which today’s 1.5- and second-generation Asians measure their success and achievements.

…So strong is the perception that the success frame is the norm among Asian Americans that the 1.5- and second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese who cannot attain it or choose to buck it find themselves at odds with their immigrant parents and with their ethnic identities.

While acknowledging the benefits of this “success frame,” Zhou and Lee are not entirely happy with it. They say they would prefer that academic prowess no longer be “coded as an ‘Asian thing.’”

Then, they write, “Asian American students may be more willing to measure their success against a more reasonable barometer, which may result in a boost in self-esteem and self-efficacy.”

You know how the caricature goes: We're STEM-brained but inarticulate. Industrious but uninspired. Capable but lacking in creativity. We're robots who can only copy and clone and grub and grind.
It's a perception that's regularly used against both Asian-Americans and Asians in Asia. Just last week, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina calling China a nation of people who can "take a test" but who are "not terribly imaginative," applying a broad-based insult to a population of over 1 billion.
And yet, as much as we may publicly bristle at the notion that Asians are "boring academic robots," it's tough to cast this image off when loud segments of our community are doing their best to reinforce it.
Case in point: The Asian-American groups that gathered a few weeks ago to file a complaint with the Department of Education, charging that Asians who get higher grades and better test scores are being shortchanged by admissions officers at Harvard College following the standard practice of "holistic review."
Holistic review gives colleges a means to analyze qualified students — even the complainants don't suggest that candidates who make it as far as the review process are anything less than academically outstanding — to assemble incoming classes that are diverse in interest, opinion, experience and, yes, culture, race and ethnicity.
The Asian-American organizations behind this complaint are, of course, laser-focused on the last of these to the exclusion of all the other factors. But in the course of slamming holistic review as part of a racially discriminatory conspiracy against Asian applicants, they're also supporting the notion that we can't compete when measured on metrics other than grades and test results.
That's because these advocates have chosen to focus on SAT scores as their primary evidence that colleges do not embrace "meritocracy." But the fact is, unlike in Asian countries like China, Korea or Japan, American colleges do not use the results of a single national exam as the sole metric for college placement, and for good reason. Doing so is a recipe for cranking out students who are focused on "learning to the test" and who don't have the time or bandwidth to pursue their own personal pastimes and obsessions — the kinds of things that tend to enrich character, expand horizons and make you a more interesting person.
Asian parents certainly have their children's best interest at heart. But in many cases, their educational perspective has been shaped by exams and numerical placements, from growing up in societies where standardized test results and the colleges that they place you in define your entire life. It's not surprising that, for them, merit equals test results, and softer traits — like passion, imagination and originality — seem less worthy of inclusion in the process of judging an applicant's qualifications for college admission.
And yet, those quirks are what catch admissions officers' eyes. When faced with a sea of applicants whose test scores are all in the 99th percentile and who have demonstrated spectacular academic success throughout their educational careers, you don't stand out by scoring 2400 instead of 2228 (the median SAT score for Harvard's entering class last year) or by having perfect grades in high school (as did 54% of Harvard freshmen). Everyone's a high achiever, but the lucky individuals admitted to the class of 2018 were the ones who had unique and compelling stories to tell.
The notion that kids might thrive by being different doesn't come naturally to Asian immigrant parents, raised as they were in more rigid academic cultures. That's why a growing number are turning to consulting companies like Top Tier, Ivy Coach and ThinkTank Learning for advice on how to help their kids to look not just smart, but special, by highlighting their more idiosyncratic pursuits and interests. The cost? As much as hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
It's ironic. Asian-American parents who've pushed their children to conform to two-dimensional templates are now paying big money for programs designed to release them from their tiger cages and unleash their hidden iconoclasts.
Here's a thought: Why not save that money — and the outrage and effort being expended on campaigns for test-centric meritocracy — and encourage the dreams and passions of your kids instead?

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