Washington Post: The ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ of stereotyping Asian American students

“Ophelia” was never a very good student.

The second generation Vietnamese American described herself as “not very intelligent,” someone who got straight Cs. She failed the exam to qualify for Advanced Placement classes at the end of Junior High.

But for reasons beyond her understanding, she was placed on the AP track when she got to high school. There, surrounded by ambitious peers and high expectations, “something clicked,” she told researcher Jennifer Lee.

I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” she said. “I think the competition kind of increases” the desire to “do better.”

Ophelia graduated with a 4.2 grade point average and an acceptance to a prestigious pharmacy program.

Lee, a sociologist at the University of California at Irvine, is an author of the new book “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” which examines how stereotypes based on race can determine students’ chances for success. For their research, she and co-author Min Zhou surveyed hundreds of students like Ophelia — children of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants who felt they were treated differently because of their race.

Teachers and guidance counselors and peers assumed that they were smart and disciplined and high achieving,” Lee told The Washington Post. “So they were more likely to be placed on advanced tracks, more likely to be directed toward selective colleges. Some admitted to getting grades they didn’t feel like they deserved.”

Paradoxically, though, this was one stereotype that served its targets well. Lee said students who were subject to irrationally high expectations usually rose to meet them. Surrounded by brainy classmates only happy with “As,” they adjusted their own notions of what it means to do well. Assumed to be a “smart Asian,” as Lee put it, they put extra effort into their coursework in order to live up to expectations of their ethnicity.

What you have is a self-fulfilling prophesy where initially what is untrue becomes true,” Lee said. She calls it the “stereotype promise.”

Lee’s findings are the inverse of social science we’ve heard about before. For the past two decades, researchers have been investigating the “stereotype threat” — how negative assumptions about certain groups can undercut their performance. It’s been used to explain why high-achieving African American students sometimes struggle when they get to college, why talented women may underperform in STEM fields.

Social psychologist Claude Steele, who coined the term in 1995, explained how the stereotype threat affects members of groups that are seen as less able or intelligent.

They know that they are especially likely to be seen as having limited ability,” he wrote in the Atlantic in 1999. “Groups not stereotyped in this way don’t experience this extra intimidation. And it is a serious intimidation, implying as it does that they may not belong in walks of life where the tested abilities are important — walks of life in which they are heavily invested. Like many pressures, it may not be experienced in a fully conscious way, but it may impair their best thinking.”

In the Los Angeles area, where Lee and her colleagues surveyed 4,800 first-generation Americans, the children of Mexican immigrants were most likely to be affected by the stereotype threat. These respondents told Lee that they were rarely taken seriously as students. They weren’t offered help preparing for the SAT and weren’t advised to apply for four-year colleges. If Mexican American students wanted to get into a selective school, they had to be their own tutors, their own guidance counselors.

One of the questions it raises is how many students aren’t given the opportunity to meet their potential,” Lee said.

Lee’s finding challenges the assumption that gaps in achievement are purely cultural, that “tiger moms” and community regard for education entirely explain Asian American students’ success. The perception of a culture can be as influential as the culture itself.

That’s not to say that culture isn’t a factor — Lee has previously studied how raised expectations within the Asian American community drive high achievement. But when we adopt stereotypes about Asians and education, we’re crediting the wrong culture, she said. It’s not necessarily Chinese people who value education so highly (only 4 percent of China’s population has a college degree), it’s the highly educated Chinese immigrants who come to the United States, more than half of whom went to college.

It’s not culture reduced to a certain ethnicity,” Lee said. “It’s about who immigrates to the U.S. and what sort of norms they’re bringing.”

Chinese and Korean immigrants are “hyper-selected,” as Lee put it. They are more likely to be highly skilled and more likely to hold an advanced degree than almost any other immigrant group. In fact, they are almost twice as likely to be college-educated than the general U.S. population — only 28 percent of Americans have graduated from college. Since parents’ level of educational attainment is one of the best predictors of their children’s achievement, it’s hardly surprising that academically successful Chinese immigrants will have academically successful kids.

Teachers’ assumptions about Asian culture — misplaced though they may be — affect how they perceive Asian American students. And Asian American students internalize those perceptions. They wind up achieving more than they normally would have based on a stereotype that isn’t even completely true.

We think that grades and test scores and who gets into what colleges is objective, that it’s all about individual effort,” Lee said. “But our work reveals the hidden ways in which biases and stereotypes operate that make certain outcomes more possible for certain groups.”

Most of the students Lee spoke to said that the stereotype promise was a good thing. It helped them do well in school and get into good colleges.

But Lee warns that it can be a “double-edged sword.” Asian American students are also likely to feel a form of the intimidation Steele described in writing about the stereotype threat.

While black students may worry that their failures will reinforce negative assumptions about African American achievement, Asian American students who didn’t meet the high expectations set for them “didn’t feel Asian,” Lee said. One man told her that he was “the whitest Chinese guy she’ll ever meet,” because he didn’t fit the stereotype of a high-achieving Asian. The pressure can lead to mental health issues, like anxiety and depression.

And the positive stereotypes that serve Asian Americans well in school can act against them once they’re in the workforce. They have a harder time attaining leadership positions because they’re seen as diligent and thoughtful, rather than bold and creative, according to Lee. She noted that Asian Americans made up 6 percent of college students (slightly more than their proportion of the U.S. population) but 2 percent of college presidents. In Silicon Valley, Asian Americans are 27 percent of the workforce but just 14 percent of executives.

The stereotype promise may help Asian American students get a degree, Lee said, but the “bamboo ceiling” stops them from achieving as much as they could with it.

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Asian-American domination in elite schools triggers resentment and soul searching

 

Student at Stuyvesant High School
Student at Stuyvesant High School Wikipedia

The rise of Asian-Americans and their dominance in academia may be exemplified by the extraordinary performance of Asian-American students in New York City.

According to recent media reports, Asian-American students account for almost three-fourths of the enrollment at Stuyvesant High School, one of the city’s eight specialized, elite public schools that strictly use test scores for admission. Asians represent less than 14 percent of the city’s entire public school student body, meaning they are disproportionately represented at Stuyvesant by a magnitude of about five. (In 1970, Asians accounted for only 6 percent of Stuyvesant’s student body.) Whites, including Jewish students whose numbers made them prominent as a group at the school, now represent less than a fourth (24 percent) of Stuyvesant’s enrollment, down from 79 percent in 1970.

In stark contrast, the enrollment of blacks and Hispanics (who together account for about three-fourths of the city’s entire public school system) at Stuyvesant is almost minimal — and falling. According to the New York Times, only seven black students were admitted to Stuyvesant this year (down from nine last year), while the number of Latinos dropped from 24 to 21. (Stuyvesant has a total enrollment of about 3,300.)

At two other prominent elite public schools in New York, Brooklyn Technical High School and Bronx High School of Science, the number of black pupils is also small, and it’s declining compared to previous recent years, the Times noted. For example, black enrollment at Stuyvesant peaked in 1975 at 12 percent of the student body.

Some critics blame the low enrollment of blacks and Hispanics at Stuyvesant (and the other specialized schools) on one principal factor: their lack of access to test preparation academies and tutoring classes.

Reportedly, many students in impoverished black and Latino neighborhood schools are not even aware of the testing procedures and how to prepare for them, nor can many afford the costly classes to train for these crucial pretest examinations.

The city’s Education Department said that 28,000 students across the city took the “Specialized High School Admissions Test” last year, and about 5,700 of them were offered admission to the elite schools. Of that figure, 53 percent were Asian, 26 percent were white, but only 5 percent were black and 7 percent Hispanic.

Two of the city’s most powerful voices, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, have called for a revamp of admission policies and procedures.

We must do more to reflect the diversity of our city in our top-tier schools — and we are committed to doing just that,” Fariña told the Daily News. “In the coming months we will be looking at ways to address the gap that has left so many of our black and Latino students out of specialized high schools.”

De Blasio, whose mixed-race son, Dante, attends one of the elite public schools, Brooklyn Tech, has promised to change the admissions procedures, although any proposal he makes is subject to approval by the state Legislature in Albany, which made the single-test admission requirement state law in 1971.

These schools are the jewels in the crown for our public school system,” de Blasio said at a news conference. “This is a city blessed with such diversity. Our schools, especially our particularly exceptional schools, need to reflect that diversity.”

Karim Camara, a Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, is preparing a revised bill that would give the city power to control admissions rules in the elite public schools.

The Brooklyn Reader reported that Reginald Richardson, a high school principal in Brooklyn, said that while the enrollment numbers for blacks and Latinos at elite public schools are unacceptable, the root problem is that there are insufficient educational opportunities available to non-Asian minorities, and the main problem is not the testing.

These outcomes tell us that the education that black and Latino kids are receiving in the elementary schools and middle schools in the city is poor, and that they’re not able to be competitive,” he said. “But those same kids are going to have to sit for the SATs when it’s time to go to college, and you won’t be able to change the metrics for the SATs. We need to address the fundamental problem of all kids getting a great education. And that’s not happening in the city. And these results of these entrance examinations in the schools are just evidence of it.”

Academics are divided over these various issues: why Asians perform so well academically, and whether testing should be the sole basis of admission to top schools.

Guofang Li, an associate professor of second language and literacy education in the Department of Teacher Education of Michigan State University, is one scholar who does not believe that admission-by-testing is unfair to anyone.

In a culture where Asians are still a minority group — and often marginalized in society– tests are actually providing a good pathway for Asians to get opportunities like … attending a good school with good resources … which can help them get into a better university and hopefully better employment in the future,” she said in an interview.

But Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, believes that admission testing is quite unfair to economically disadvantaged Hispanics and blacks.

Access to unequal resources will result in unequal outcomes,” she said. “Until we can provide adequate resources for all New York City children to prepare for admissions tests, we will continue see racial disparities in admissions to schools like Stuyvesant.”

On the other side of the argument, Li  believes that applying affirmative action-type policies to public school admissions would be disastrous.

[Stuyvesant] is diverse, just [with] different [racial] ratios,” she said. “Normally, most schools in suburban areas are 75 percent white and 25 percent other ethnic groups, while urban schools [may typically have a] 75 percent black or Hispanic population and 25 percent other ethnic groups.” She noted that such school racial compositions are accepted by most people as “diverse,” but when Asians form the dominant ethnic group (as in Stuyvesant), suddenly questions and complaints arise.

I do think people have a perception [of] what a diverse school has to be,” she said. “[But] if Asians are in good schools, they have a problem with it.”

Jerome Krase of the sociology department at Brooklyn College-CUNY, author of “Seeing Cities Change: Local Culture and Class,” said that if de Blasio and Fariña want to change admission policies at elite high schools, it would defeat the schools’ very purpose. But he does see race playing a role in denying opportunities to blacks and Latinos.

[It would be] better to improve the local schools and improve the life conditions of those who are disadvantaged,” Krase said. “They could also make sure that all schools provide the best education possible for all students. [But] this is not likely, because it means paying higher taxes to help other peoples’ children. New York City and Americans in general are no longer as generous when it comes to helping those in need, especially as the composition of those in need have become less ‘European’.”

Asians in New York City, who comprise a broad array of ethnic groups, including Pakistanis, Chinese, Indians, and Koreans, among many others, are uncomfortable with comments suggesting that there are “too many” of them in the metropolis’ best public schools. This perception puts many Asian students and their families on the defensive about their cultures’ emphasis on education and personal sacrifice, and many feel it also can lead to racially biased statements about the work habits and intelligence of other ethnic groups.

Jan Michael Vicencio, a Filipino student at Brooklyn Tech, explained to the Times how Asian students are both ridiculed and praised for their academic excellence. “You know, [other kids say] ‘You’re Asian, you must be smart,’ ” he said. “And you’re not sure [if] it’s a compliment or an insult. We get that a lot.”

Other Asian students point out that parental discipline and rigorous scholarship, which are common in their cultures, explain their relatively superior performance in American schools, not any innate intelligence or intellectual superiority.

Most of our parents don’t believe in [the word] ‘gifted,’” Riyan Iqbal, a son of Bangladeshi immigrants and a student at Bronx Science, said. “It’s all about hard work.”

Citing the poverty and hardships his family experienced in their native Bangladesh, Riyan added: “You try to make up for their hardships. I knew my parents would still love me if I didn’t get into Bronx Science. But they would be very disappointed.”

Asians in general value education, according to Li.

“[The] education of their children is often a family affair, and the whole family [invests] a lot of time, resources and efforts, even soon after a child is born,” Li said. “Many Asian families invest a lot of money [in] their children’s studies, including preparing for exams and tests.

But, again, Lee takes a somewhat different view on why Asians perform well on tests. She says that some Asian immigrants — especially Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese — hail from countries where the only means of gaining admission into universities is through a rigorous, national entrance exam.

So, they are more accustomed to the practice of test-taking for school admissions,” Lee said. “And because of the high stakes of students’ performance on this test, Asian parents are more likely to invest their resources in supplemental education for their children to ensure that they perform well on these tests.”

Lee added that some of this supplemental education is offered at no or little cost in ethnic communities through community organizations, while churches also help poor and working-class Chinese overcome their class disadvantages.

So it’s not that certain groups or certain cultures value education more than others,” Lee insisted. “All groups value education. Rather, groups have differential access to available resources to help them gain access into these competitive magnet schools.”

Lee noted that Asian immigrants tend to come from countries in which effort, rather than ability alone, is hailed as the route to achievement.

Because Asian immigrant parents believe that increased effort leads to continuous improvement, they are more likely to invest their resources in supplemental education for their children compared to native-born American parents,” she said.

On a national basis, some Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans are both puzzled and outraged over quota and affirmative action programs that hurt them despite their status as “racial minorities.”

Irwin Tang, an Austin, Texas-based psychotherapist, told Diverse Education that he believes some of the nation’s elite universities impose “unofficial” quotas to limit Asian enrollment, as they once did for Jews. According to reports, up to 18 percent of Ivy League school students are now of Asian descent, and Harvard’s incoming class last year was more than one-fifth Asian. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 28 percent of students are Asian-American, while at University of California at Berkeley, the figure is 39 percent.

Affirmative action lowers the bar for black and Hispanic students,” Tang said. “They don’t have to score high or have as high of a GPA compared to an Asian student. That’s why many Asian students are being advised not to reveal their race.”

Tang added that he would like to see high schools and elementary schools improve across the board. “The solution is not affirmative action. The solution is to have equal standards for everyone and an improved education system,” he said.

Ron Unz, the publisher of the American Conservative magazine, wrote in an op-ed in the Times in December 2012 that quotas on Asians at Harvard and other elite colleges — the allegations are widely denied by university officials — echo similar quotas imposed on Jews decades ago. Unz argued that while the Asian-American population has about doubled since the early 1990s, their presence in Ivy League institutions has either remained flat or fallen slightly.

The last 20 years have brought a huge rise in the number of Asians winning top academic awards in our high schools or being named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists,” Unz wrote. “It seems quite suspicious that none of [these] trends have been reflected in their increased enrollment at Harvard and other top Ivy League universities.”

Despite the stellar performance of Asians in U.S. high schools and colleges, their ascendance to high positions in corporations has not caught up.

Many outstanding Asians from top colleges often experience barriers to promotion and advancement at work,”  Li said. “Few Asians are in leadership or management positions [at top firms].”

Indeed, a report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2008 revealed that Asians experience multiple forms of discrimination in corporate America.

There is also a separate issue to consider — given how bewilderingly diverse and large the Asian-American community is, not all segments of this group are doing well, either academically or professionally. Generally speaking, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Indians have excelled academically and earn higher-than-average incomes. But, other Asians, particularly Bangladeshis and some Southeast Asians (e.g., Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, etc.) remain poor, undereducated and underemployed. These facts would seem to provide evidence that “Asian cultural values” do not necessarily guarantee success, given some harsh socio-economic realities.

It is critical to underscore that ‘Asian-American’ is a broad and diverse category that includes immigrant groups who arrive as highly selected and highly educated, as well as others who arrive as poorly educated immigrants or refugees with little formal education and few skills,” Lee said.

 

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Asian-American domination in elite schools triggers resentment and soul searching

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This Japanese Student Is Better At Vandalizing His Textbooks Than You’ll Ever Be

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Most textbook doodlers are content to simply draw penises all day. Not Chanta, a Japanese high school student. He sees the hidden potential in his textbook illustrations.

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This Japanese Student Is Better At Vandalizing His Textbooks Than You’ll Ever Be

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