The Other Achievement Gap

The lessons we can learn from Asian American success

By Leah Shafer, on April 17, 2017 4:28 PM
The Other Achievement Gap: The lessons we can learn from Asian American success  #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

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?

Acknowledging Asian American Success

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.

Foundations of Asian American Success

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:

  • Attribute their children’s success to hard work, rather than intelligence
  • Prioritize education above all else, often making extraordinary efforts for their children to attend good schools
  • Respect educators to a greater degree than other cultural groups do, and to explicitly teach their children to do so
  • Emphasize the importance of success in school, and to teach their children that being a student is their main role
  • Reserve praise for excellence, teaching children that self-esteem is earned, not a right

Learning from the Other Achievement Gap

Pittinsky has several suggestions for how families and educators serving students of all backgrounds can learn from Asian American success.

Lessons for Families

  • Remind children that being a student is their job. Prioritize homework time, ask to review assignments, and praise hard work, especially when children feel discouraged or apathetic.
  • Remember that afternoons and weekends are valuable learning time. Visit libraries, museums, and community centers, showing children that they can and should always be learning. Families should “think about what they can uniquely contribute to their children’s effort and perseverance outside the school building and outside school hours,” says Pittinsky.
  • Model a love of learning. Read for pleasure, and ask your child questions about what he is learning in school.
  • Don’t think of school as in charge of children’s education. Instead, “own the education” of your children, and “consider yourself to be the main resource” for their learning, says Pittinsky.

Lessons for Educators

  • Acknowledge what parents are doing to help their children succeed. Praise their efforts reading with their children, helping them with projects, and reaching out to teachers with questions. Make sure families understand that their engagement is valued.
  • At the same time, make it clear that family engagement is necessary for success. Teachers and administrators, says Pittinsky, “need to make sure they don’t overpromise to parents what the school can do without the families as serious allies. It’s a real mistake for schools to let parents think that the school ‘has it’ as their job to educate their kids.”

Avoiding Generalizations

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.”

Additional Resources

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Faculty in this article

Todd L. Pittinsky

Todd Pittinsky's research investigates the well-known problems and underestimated potential of diverse communities, with a central focus on positive intergroup relations.