Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Asian student performance

Why do Asian students do so well academically? Nicholas Kristoff asks this for the US and provides answers relevant to Australia.

Kristoff argues:

‘…stellar academic achievement has an Asian face… .Among whites, 2% score 750 or better in either the math or verbal SAT. Among Asian-Americans, 3% beat 750 in verbal, and 8% in math. Frankly, you sometimes feel at an intellectual disadvantage if your great-grandparents weren't peasants in an Asian village.

…..One theory percolating among some geneticists is that in societies that were among the first with occupations that depended on brains, genetic selection may have raised IQ’s slightly — a theory suggesting that maybe Asians are just smarter. But I'm skeptical, partly because so much depends on context’.
A more plausible reasons for strong Asian performance is that immigrant families focus on their kids getting ahead. Also many Asian kids see the sacrifices their families make and both (i) feel obliged to repay their parent’s efforts, and, (ii) seek a better life for themselves. Ethics too – such as Confucianism encourage a reverence for education and for hard work.

Kristoff concludes:

‘…the success of Asian-Americans is mostly about culture, and there's no way to transplant a culture. But there are lessons we can absorb, and maybe the easiest is that respect for education pays dividends. That can come, for example, in the form of higher teacher salaries, or greater public efforts to honor star students. While there are no magic bullets, we would be fools not to try to learn some Asian lessons’. (my emphasis).

I agree – socially and politically non-Asians can learn from this experience.

Moreover although I have been unable to gather comprehensive, race-specific data for Australia (I’d be interested if anyone had some) I think casual observation suggests Asian Australians outperform others academically.

For example, 9 out of 20 of the top all round students in the recent 2005 Victorian VCE are of Asian origin which heavily over-represents their incidence in the Australian population. A similar over-representation of Asian kids occurs at private schools where a large proportion of students have Asian ethnicity and where – more generally – many students are migrants or the children of migrants. This suggests high parental motivation given the hefty fees involved.

Moreover, this bias towards intellectual achievement among Asians is not restricted to vocationally-oriented academic studies. Consider music education, for example – a majority of the students who graduate with advanced Australian Music Examinations Board (AMEB) qualifications in music (for example the Licentiate in Music) are Asian. They are often Chinese.

One can pose the comparative issue raised above in different ways - some of these reflect more directly what is almost an implicit racism in the Kristoff type of question.

  • Why, comparatively, do non-Asian students do badly?
  • Are non-Asian Australians a slothful, complacent, non-ambitious lot or are they making skillful wealth/cultural endowment – effort tradeoffs?
  • Will second-generation Asian students, with Australianised ethics, revert to the average performance?

My guess is that partial but not complete reversion will occur. In the meantime complementarities between skilled and less skilled labour in the workforce – as well as the general externalities associated with having skilled professionals - benefit us all. This is not a winner-takes-all race and, those who are achieving success, deserve an acknowledgement for the advantages they provide us all.


civitas said...

Harry, you are putting up so many articles of interest to me. I'm taking one of my daughters to Stanford University in June for a tour of the campus. Her counselors thinks she can get in. She's a math and science whiz. If you look at who is getting accepted to Stanford and other similar US schools, you'll find an overwhelming Asian population.

I think it's because they just outwork everyone else. Recently, an organization I consult with hosted a regional sdcience competition final, and of the 10 teams, 8 of them were all female and 4 of theose were Asian girls. Two more were Middle Eastern girl teams. Where are the boys? If Asian kids are willing to outwork everyone else, more power to em. They deserve what they get, they've worked for it.

In some California school districts, Caucasian parents have begun pulling their kids out of public schools because they cannot compete with the Asian kids who are now the majority in some schools.

Patrick said...

I agree that it is mainly just about working. I also agree that we could do more to support excellence.

Melbourne Uni is a good example, rhetoric aside - do you know who won the prizes in economics subjects this year? Does anyone else? Are they on the notice-boards?

I'm betting not. Yet winning a prize is a real achievement, and one that should be lauded, and aspired to.

conrad said...

I agree that there is a big "immigrant effect" in some of the Asians groups we get here -- they are not exceptionally representative of the countries they come from -- not unlike the white people who work in the rich Asian countries. I'm sure Asians wonder why whites are so succesful in their countries. I think a lot of people don't realize that, but anyone that works in Asia does.

At least anecdotally, I don't see the second generation Asians reverting to the slothful Australian stereotype. It would be nice to have real data. Apart from cultural differences of the Asian families, there is an another obvious reason for this (at least to anyone who isn't white) -- there is still a lot racism in employment practices in Australia, even if that amounts to "employ someone similar to me".

This basically excludes many groups from getting a huge variety of jobs, and those jobs left that have less discrimanatory hiring practises seem to be many of the well paying ones.

anon said...

I question some of this rhetoric. When I was at university, the Asian students in my course spent enormous amounts of time doing past exam papers.

This was an effective technique to get good marks in exams, but not necessarily a good learning technique. When new courses were introduced with no past exams, those Asian students did poorly.

hc said...

civitas, The last para surprises me - I woulde have thoughrt there would be beneficial externalities from hhaving skilled kids around. That is really surprising and suggests a big gap in academic standards.

Actually Patrick I went to that Melbourne ceremony (I got a teaching prize!) - it wasn't half bad. You couldn't help noticing the large number of award winners who were Asian by the way.

I am sympathetic to your views anon. Of course the data is fragmentary - I assume some exists but I don't know where to locate it. In the article discussed the author argues that hard work is a skill in itself so we may not hold divergent views.

civitas said...

Harry, it's all about the competition. If your kid is smart and does well but is surrounded by kids who constantly exceed your child's performance, many parents cannot take that. It makes your kid look bad, or so they think. In really good schools in the US, the competition is absolutely overwhelming, starting in pre-school, age 2. Some people plan their kids' lives out starting at birth. To get into MIT or Stanford or Princeton, you have to be darn near perfect. And you have to be that all the time. Some people drive their kids over the edge. It's quite sad actually. I have one terribly motivated teenager and one who's quite happy doing a bit less. The first must be perfect at all times, I actually have to stop her from over-studying. The second may be better off in the long run and is certainly a happier kid.

"That is really surprising and suggests a big gap in academic standards."

I think it suggests a big gap in effort more than anything else. But yes, the school you go to here in the US matters tremendously. We bought our house because it was in a top school district. I went to NYC public schools, but they were great schools.

(I got a teaching prize!)


Patrick said...

Yes, my congratulations as well.

But my point wasn't about the ceremonies themselves, which I think are pretty good. My only gripe with them is that they could have slightly higher-profile speakers and guests, but then again the slightly-higher profile people would have to be bothered!

My real issue is that half the time I'm not sure that the teachers even know who got the prizes in their subjects, let alone the student body. And I think that is a pity, because I can't see why they shouldn't publish lists - after all they publish final honours lists in most faculties, but prize lists in none that I know of.

As for Asians working harder, well so what. Quite obviously either they don't work harder or working harder isn't all their is to life, when you think about it. Or did working harder only get invented in Japan in the last half-century before spreading to China then Korea et al? The experiences of Chinese workers on the goldfields of both Australia and the US would suggest not, to pick on example.

Experience with NYC professional services firms suggests strongly that the hard working thing isn't distinctively 'Asian', too. Experience with any number of 'Aussie' sports players suggests that there is nothing distinctly 'Asian' about fanatical individuals or parents.

Not to mention that in my personal and probably completely unrepresentative experience, sub-continentals, Arabs and the various brands of white are all perfectly capable of working hard, too. I admit, I don't know many high-achieving 'wogs' and simply not many Africans at all.

I think it simply comes down to family culture, which is the product of a whole lot of things. The most general I would be willing to go to would be that maybe some ethnic or national cultures are slightly more likely to produce achievement-oriented family cultures.

Generalisation may well be the essence of human thought, but it is the enemy of understanding.

hc said...

Patrick, The speaker at that awards night was Sir James Mirrlees who has a Nobel Prize in Economics. He is a notable.