The dangerous thing about stereotypes is that they're often built on a kernel, however small, of truth. And the ones about Asian-Americans aren't any different – so the latest research appearing in the journal PNAS attempts to get to bottom of the stereotype of Asian-American academic prowess. Are tiger moms — so-called for their hyper-disciplining parenting and their laser-like focus on achievement and performance — to thank? Deeper financial pockets that can fund tutors and summer school? Or are Asian Americans just smarter than white kids?
So I was intrigued by how Amy Hsin and Yu Xie attempted to explain the academic advantage of Asian-Americans over whites. Hsin, from Queens College at the City University of New York, and Xie, from the University of Michigan, quickly found that higher socio-economic status and greater intellect didn't contribute as much as some researchers have thought to the grade gap. Even recent immigrants who didn't have much in the way of financial or social support still tended to do better in school than non-Asian students born and raised in the U.S. And from kindergarten throughout high school, Asian-American students score about the same as whites on standardized tests.
That leaves the work ethic, which Hsin and Xie found accounted for almost all of the grade gap between Asian-American and white students. And that was driven by two factors, both of which have more to do with social and cultural factors than racial ones. Among the more than 5200 Asian-American and white students from two large datasets that followed them from kindergarten into high school, Asian-American students were able to take advantage of social support systems that helped to translate their effort into success. In their communities, families are surrounded by ways to enhance education – from word-of-mouth advice about the best school districts to resources like books, videos and websites, to cram schools for after-school classes. "The Tiger Mom argument neglects these social resources and forces that sustain and reinforce the work ethic," says Hsin.
In other words, it takes a village. It also takes a culture that may have less to do with race specifically, and more to do with broader social factors such as immigration." Asian-American youth are more likely to attribute intellect and academic success to effort rather than innate ability," she says. That's a natural outgrowth of the belief that success – in school, in work, and in life — is a meritocratic commodity; the more you put in, the more you get out. When quizzed about whether they thought math skills were innate or learned, most of the white students believed it was a skill you were born with while the Asian-Americans were more likely to think it was learned, and acquired with effort.
Image: Asian mom and daughter, via Shutterstock