On average, Asian American students obtain higher grades, perform better on standardized tests, and are more likely to finish high school and attend elite colleges than their peers of all other racial backgrounds, regardless of socioeconomic status. It’s a success rate stemming from powerful family commitment to education, behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky says in a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, reflecting the view of many scholars who have looked at this trend. Individual students and families vary, of course, but what can we learn from success — while taking care to avoid generalizations?
As educators have become increasingly aware of the stagnating black/white and Latino/white achievement gaps, schools and districts have committed to addressing those gaps by supporting initiatives that can create equity, such as preschool interventions, extended school days, and summer programs.
But the white/Asian American achievement gap is either ignored or misconstrued. “When Asian American students outperform other groups, researchers often begin to pathologize it,” notes Pittinsky, a professor Stony Brook University and lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “‘These poor Asian kids, look at the damage being caused by their parents and their achievement,’ they think.”
While Asian Americans do score lower than white students on some measures of psychosocial wellbeing, Americans as a whole score so abnormally high that, globally speaking, Asian American scores are “actually quite normal,” says Pittinsky. And, he notes, researchers often fail to report other psychosocial measures of wellbeing, such as teen pregnancy and obesity, in which Asian Americans do as well as or better than peers from other ethnic backgrounds.
Degrading Asian American success “may reflect a biased assumption that what’s normal in America is for white students to be at the top.” It ignores what Asian American families are doing well to help their children succeed — strategies that all schools and parents can learn from.
In his article, Pittinsky lays out five values and expectations Asian American families commonly hold that help their children succeed in school. Research has shown that these families are more likely to:
Pittinsky has several suggestions for how families and educators serving students of all backgrounds can learn from Asian American success.
Lessons for Families
Lessons for Educators
Still, it’s vital not to draw generalized conclusions about Asian American successes.
Achievement gaps only look at averages between groups — and “no individual person is an average,” says Pittinsky. Teachers need to understand each student as an individual learner with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. The “model minority stereotype” about Asian Americans can mislead teachers to believe that none of these students are struggling academically or socially.
And, he says, it would be wrong to criticize other ethnic groups on the assumption that they don’t support their children to the same degree that Asian American parents do. Poverty, systemic racism, segregation, or under-resourced schools can all make it extremely difficult for families to assist their children’s academic growth. And this likely won’t change without a large shift in social services and public policies.
But there are lessons for all families here about the importance of emphasizing education. Says Pittinsky, the most honest strategy for addressing academic inequities today is “an approach that involves not just giving adult family members a sense of security that the school is working for their children, but an "all hands on deck" sense of urgency — of just how important education is and how helpful and important it is for education to be reinforced at home by the most important adults in any particular child’s life.
“The more a parent gets involved,” says Pittinsky, “the more that’s going to help any student of any ethnicity.”
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Todd Pittinsky's research investigates the well-known problems and underestimated potential of diverse communities, with a central focus on positive intergroup relations.