Ancient Chinese Secret: Why Asian Students Excel Academically

by Christopher Paslay

Despite institutional racism and discriminatory affirmative action policies, Asian students find ways to succeed.  

In the 1970s there was a commercial for Calgon laundry detergent where a middle-aged housewife asks an Asian owner of a dry cleaner how he got his shirts so clean:

Housewife: How do you get shirts so clean, Mr. Lee?

Mr. Lee: Ancient Chinese secret.

At the end of the commercial Mr. Lee’s secret is spoiled by his wife when she shouts out from the back of the shop, We need more Calgon!

A similar question could be asked of Asian American students regarding their academic excellence:  Is there some ancient cultural secret?   How is it that Asian American students dominate their White, Hispanic and Black peers in nearly every subject at every grade level from the start of kindergarten to graduate school?  And the word dominate is not an overstatement.  Consider the results of the following tests:

2002 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (Conducted at the start of Kindergarten):

  • Math: Asian 22.2; White 21; Hispanic 17.1; Black 16.5
  • Reading: Asian 25.7; White 23.2; Black 19.9; Hispanic 19.5

2011 NAEP National Results Grade 4:

  • Math: Asian 256; White 249; Hispanic 229; Black 224
  • Reading: Asian 235; White 231; Hispanic 206; Black 205
  • Geography: Asian 224; White 224; Hispanic 197; Black 192

2011 NAEP National Results Grade 8:

  • Math: Asian 303; White 293; Hispanic 270; Black 262
  • Reading: Asian 275; White 274; Hispanic 252; Black 249
  • Geography: Asian 224; White 224; Hispanic 197; Black 192
  • Writing: Asian 165; White 158; Hispanic 136; Black 132

2011 SAT:

  • Math: Asian 595; White 535; Hispanic 462; Black 427
  • Reading: White 528; Asian 517; Hispanic 451; Black 428
  • Writing: Asian 528; White 516; Hispanic 444; Black 417

2011 ACT (National Average Composite Score):

  • Asian 23.6; White 22.4; Hispanic 18.7; Black 17

2010 Graduate Record Exam (GRE) General Test Score:

  • Quantitative Reasoning: Asian 622; White 569; Hispanic 509; Black 431
  • Verbal Reasoning: White 493; Asian 486; Hispanic 446; Black 398
  • Analytical Writing: White 4; Asian 3.9; Hispanic 3.7; Black 3.4

2010 Law School Admissions Test (LSAT):

  • White 152.88; Asian 152.03; Hispanic 146.57; Black 142.25

What’s interesting about the academic success of Asian Americans is that this success has been achieved in the face of some pretty serious racial discrimination.  Ronald Takaki, an Asian American emeritus professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in his critically acclaimed book A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America:

Asian Americans began arriving in America long before many European immigrants. . . .  As “strangers” coming from a “different shore,” they were stereotyped as “heathen” and unassimilable.  Wanted as sojourning laborers, the Chinese were not welcomed as settlers.  During an economic depression, Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—the first law that prohibited the entry of immigrants on the basis of nationality.  The Chinese condemned this restriction as racist and tyrannical.  “They call us ‘Chink,’” complained a Chinese immigrant, cursing the “white demons.”  “They think we no good!  America cut us off.  No more come now, too bad!”  The Japanese also painfully discovered that their accomplishments in America did not lead to acceptance.  During World War II, the government interned a hundred twenty thousand Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them citizens by birth.  “How could I as a sixth-month-old child born in this country,” asked Congressman Robert Matsui years later, “be declared by my own Government to be an enemy alien?”

Discrimination of Asian Americans by the U.S. government continues even to this day.  Affirmative action policies are particularly harsh against Asian Americans, policies which ultimately keep many deserving Asian American students out of the nation’s top universities simply because too many of them are highly qualified.  According to an article in the New York Times headlined “Asian Americans in the Argument”:

“Admission to the nation’s top universities and colleges is a zero-sum proposition,” asserts the brief from the 80-20 National Asian American Educational Foundation, one of the groups opposed to affirmative action. . . . Particularly hard-hit are Asian-American students, who demonstrate academic excellence at disproportionately high rates but often find the value of their work discounted on account of either their race, or nebulous criteria alluding to it.” . . .

“If you look at the Ivy League, you will find that Asian-Americans never get to 20 percent of the class,” said Daniel Golden, author of “The Price of Admission” and editor at large for Bloomberg News. “The schools semiconsciously say to themselves, ‘We can’t have all Asians.’ ” Mr. Golden says it is helpful to think of Asians as the new Jews because some rules of college admissions, like geographic diversity, were originally aimed at preventing the number of Jews from growing too high.

So how, despite institutional racism and systematic government discrimination via affirmative action, do Asian American students manage to succeed in school?  How do they not only dominate their Black and Hispanic counterparts but also out-perform the dominant White establishment?  Again, is there some (to refer to the Calgon commercial) “ancient Chinese secret”?

A possible answer lies in family, work ethic and the priorities of the Asian culture itself.  According to the New York Times Article “For Asians, School Tests Are Vital Steppingstones”:

Almost universally, the Asian students described themselves on one edge of a deep cultural chasm.

They cited their parents’ observance of ancient belief systems like Confucianism, a set of moral principles that emphasizes scholarship and reverence for elders, as well as their rejection of child-rearing philosophies more common in the United States that emphasize confidence and general well-being.

Several students said their parents did not shy away from corporal punishment as a means of motivating them. And they said that rigorous testing was generally an accepted practice in their home countries, with the tests viewed not so much as measures of intelligence, but of industriousness.

“Most of our parents don’t believe in ‘gifted,’ ” said Riyan Iqbal, 15, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, as he and his friends — of Bengali, Korean and Indian descent — meandered toward the subway from the Bronx High School of Science one recent afternoon. “It’s all about hard work.”

Moral principles.  Scholarship.  Reverence for elders.  Hard work.

Another possible factor of Asian success: Home environment.  Consider these findings from the Educational Testing Service’s 2007 policy information report, The Family: America’s Smallest School:

Percentage of Out-of-Wedlock Births to Women Under Age 30, by Racial/Ethnic Group, 2003-2004:

  • Asian 16; White 34; Hispanic 46; Black 77

Percentage of Children in Families Where No Parent Has Full-Time, Year-Round Employment, by Racial/Ethnic Group, 2005:

  • White 27; Asian 32; Hispanic 39; Black 50

Percentage of Children Ages 3 to 5 Who Were Read to Every Day in the Past Week by a Family Member, 2005:

  • White 68; Asian 66; Black 50; Hispanic 45

Percentage of Eighth-Grade Students Who Reported Missing Three or More Days of School in the Previous Month, 2005:

  • Asian 12; White 19; Hispanic 23; Black 24

According to the ETS report, Asian American students also watched far less television, played far less video games, and had higher parental involvement in school than did their White, Hispanic and Black counterparts.

Although the late Harvard professor Richard J. Herrnstein and American Enterprise Institute Bradley Fellow Charles Murray used 70 years worth of cognitive tests to conclude that Asians have an average IQ of 105 (which they claimed was 5 points higher than Whites, 15 points higher than Hispanics, and 20 points higher than Blacks), the fact that Asian Americans dominate their peers academically clearly has more to do with nurture rather than with nature.

In other words, the Asian American culture is very academically oriented.  This, above all else, could be the “ancient Chinese secret.”

1 Comment

Filed under Achievement Gap

One response to “Ancient Chinese Secret: Why Asian Students Excel Academically

  1. As an Asian American and teacher, I must say that there is no such thing as an “ancient Chinese secret”. While some say that the tiger moms work their kids to perfection; others have authoritative moms. I wouldn’t necessarily automatically assume that every mother is a tiger mom or that Asian and Asian American students give up fun things or their social life just to get straight A’s of the perfect SAT score. Growing up, I had pretty decent grades. Did I give up playing sports? No. How about my friends? Most definitely not.

    I believe that if everyone, regardless of race, can push themselves to work harder and to do better, they excel. If they can do that, while having a social life or downtime, that’s great. The truth of the matter is that it’s all about hard work, work ethics, and balance.
    .
    On a side note, not every Asian student get’s straight A’s. or B’s. I’ve had many acquaintances in middle school and high school, who fell through the crack and got left behind. Their highest degree obtained was a diploma, if that. Just saying.

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