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Ever Wondered Why Asians Seem Like Better Students?

A group of eight students at Lincoln High School in Los Angeles hunkered down in a room to talk about a touchy subject: What's behind the Asian math-whiz-valedictorian stereotype — and why do other ethnic backgrounds appear to come up short in the classroom?

Long thought to be traceable to socioeconomic backgrounds that theory no longer makes the grade. At Lincoln High School both the surrounding neighborhood and student body are 15 percent Asian — why then do Asian students make up 50 percent of the Advanced Placement classes, and teachers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian?

The students' talk about the difference was frank. When talking about a Hispanic student who was good at math one said, "I think Carlos is Asian at heart," and described one Asian student who didn't get good grades as, "Mexican at heart." The students squashed the economic background reasoning, agreeing that of their school, the Latino and Asian students came mostly from poor and working-class families.

Looking further at census data, 84 percent of the Asian and Latino families in the area earn below $50,000 — stumping the fact that the Science Bowl team is 90 percent Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team.

To see possible reasons for this,


  • The students say that Asian parents are more likely to pressure their kids to excel academically. "My parents are always like, 'If you don't do well in school, then it's all going to be worth nothing,' "
  • Peer expectations also enforce the stereotype. "They expect me to be smart. Even if, like, I do everything wrong on purpose, they still copy off of me — as if I'm right just because I'm Asian."
  • Research studying the Mexican work ethic found that labor and education occupy the same pedestal of importance, and in some cases work is even more valued, "In Latino families, being able to work to provide defines your manhood, your worthiness."

Do these reasons seem plausible? Is it possible to figure out why stereotypes exist?


Join The Conversation
haydee haydee 9 years
With the very poor living conditions in most parts of Asia, getting a good education is the only key to getting a better job in the future. That's why Asians strive to do well in school and in life over all. There is pressure from the community and parents are very proud when they get to send their children to the best Universities in their country or abroad. The study habits also play a big part. I did not have a lot of extracurricular activities when I was growing up. I was always studying for all my academic classes
brilliance13 brilliance13 9 years
I am Asian and not going to try to re-emphasize the points that have already been made about culture and pressure growing up in a first generation Asian-American household. I do however want to share that I grew up and went to high school in a predominantly white mid-upper affluent school district/surburban neighborhood. I vividly recall extreme racial discrimination from elementary school all the way through high school because of this very issue. In high school it was worst; you know the stereotyping is intentional when people ask to copy off your homework or ridicule you in front of class becasue you are Asian. I had classmates announce before the teacher arrived in class they hated me and all people like me ("Asians") because I broke the curve and did well on the exams in biology class. Granted this is coming from an extremely rich girl who spends her spare time shoplifting at Nordstroms for the thrill while driving to the mall in her father's BMW. I chose at that time to ignore her ignorance--partly because I was in the minority and I didn't have the guts to say it at the time, but if she had focused more on paying attention in class and actually doing her homework, she woulnd't need to bully and harass those that are doing better than her. I knew plenty of incredibly intelligent Caucasian people in my classes as well--none of them were ever ridiculed or harassed because of their drive and success. There are two sides to every story, --yes Asian people work hard, but we often pay for it socially and sometimes we aren't accepted becasue our peers feel we have an innate unfair advantage. I'll tell you what that advantage is--locking yourself in your room for 18 years and reading (re-reading) chapter after chapter of all your textbooks. Making sure that you won't miss that ONE question and get an A- because your parents told you failure was unacceptable. So you try your best to be accepted and work harder because you see how your parents struggle with English, how people treat them unfairly at work and you don't want to be a replica of them. You want to make them proud and succeed to beyond what their generation could accomplish. The road to that goal is never easy and you know that wherever you go, some people will always just see the color of your skin. Just a few months ago I was sitting at an executive meeting in front of the dean of the medical school at a prestigious university in North Carolina. After conversing about business, he proceeded to use an analogy repeating "ah just like a Chinese take out menu?" several times while looking at me. I was working in the field of healthcare intelligence dressed in a corporate suit and I have no foreigen accent whatsoever- our conversation had nothing to do with food, least of all Chinese food. Once you venture out of the melting pot cities, you never know how people view you: are you the help? or do they treat you as an equal peer?
geebers geebers 9 years
I am Asian too and definitely agree that my parents were very focused on education - they always told me that academic success was the path to succeeding in life. Their positive pressure is something I carried with me and eventually I pushed myself to succeed. Also - I do believe that peers and others expect Asians to be smart so it does add to the pressure.
poizenisxkandee poizenisxkandee 9 years
i am filipina which is a type of asian, but even my parents poke fun at the stereotype. a joke with some friends is that asian parents beat their children if they do badly in school. which may or may not be true, depending on who you ask. typical east asian society is very traditional, even when they move stateside. my grandparents were absolutely horrified that i had male friends over. but ive always been taught that education is important and would give me a direction from which i could change the world and give back to the community. family is very important too and it would be a shame to the family to not excel. which for me was a step in a good direction, but some friends with even more traditional families is too much pressure. i was always taught that to be happy would make my parents happy and proud but a friend of mine who is chinese was taught to go to harvard med school or she would be disowned. no joke. she was forced to apply to many many big name schools that she honestly probably could not have gotten into. she didnt and her parents have settled for her going to community college so at least they can keep an eye on her.
True-Song True-Song 9 years
I wonder how this might shift in coming generations. I wonder if subsequent generations will become more "Americanized" and expect less of their children.
MartiniLush MartiniLush 9 years
hypno, thanks for sharing that story. It is not only inspiring but reminds me that, as a parent, I really need to maintain an engaged presence with my son's education.
rabidmoon rabidmoon 9 years
I have a Korean friend who was raised in Sweden but has a totally Korean mind when it comes to culture, he often talks about how much pride matters to them, how family expectations run very high, and how mistakes weigh heavily on the minds of those for whom these expectations are held as well as the ones who hold them. I also recall reading a long time ago that high suicide rates in young people in Japan were attributed to the fact that failing grades in school meant failing at life, since school, university and the career ladder were high-pressure all the way, and if you fell off at one point, there was no getting back on. That being said, while Asian countries traditionally dominate math and science scoring on a global scale, it may actually surprise some people that according to OECD/PISA study, (Outcomes of Learning: Results from the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment of 15-Year-Olds in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy), the top performing countries are not exclusively Asian: 1)Reading Literacy: Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia 2)Mathematical Literacy: Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Finland 3)Scientific Literacy: Korea, Japan, Finland, UK I had to mention that, since little 'ol Finland is kicking butt. :D
Jude-C Jude-C 9 years
Not at the crap-ass school I went to for elementary, no.
bleached bleached 9 years
"My mom made me memorize the times tables up to 12 when I was in first grade" You mean not everyone had to do this?
Jude-C Jude-C 9 years
I'm Asian, and my parents were very traditional in their intense focus on academic achievement, particularly in areas like math and science (as opposed to the humanities). My mom made me memorize the times tables up to 12 when I was in first grade. I definitely don't think it's an "Asians are smart" thing. It's absolutely to do with the heavy emphasis the culture places on school and grades. If you develop the discipline early on, you're likely to do well in those areas--it's got nothing to do with any sort of innate aptitude, IMO.
popgoestheworld popgoestheworld 9 years
I think there are probably a lot of reasons, and it would seem that family and peer pressure to succeed would certainly be a huge factor. I grew up in So Cal and was like 1 of 2 white girls in the AP classes. There was a lot of pressure on some of the Asian kids in my classes.
darkangel2305 darkangel2305 9 years
Mexican studies do not fit the rest of the Hispanic population. Some of us come from countries were education a highly valued. Same goes for the education level of Hispanic immigrants - we do not all fit the same mold... For example, in South Florida, most valedictorians are Hispanics. Usually of Cuban or Colombia birth or descent; in these cases many times their parents were highly educated in their countries even if they cannot exercise that profession here due to licensing, etc.
L0neLyHeArT L0neLyHeArT 9 years
I'm Chinese and my parents do have high expectations of me to get good grades. I don't always do well in school, and my parents could care less. Some people expect me to be smart just because I'm Asian. So I don't think that many Asian students are smart, I just think that's a stereotype.
Fo-show317771 Fo-show317771 9 years
I totally agree with you on that one Krradford.
imLissy imLissy 9 years
my cousin is Korean, she was adopted. She's done much better academically than her siblings. I think expectations play a huge part. Though I also know, a lot of my Asian friends in school went to Korean school or Japanese school where they were learning like advanced calculus and crap... wtf?
Kelliegrl Kelliegrl 9 years
Based on the majority of posts so far, having parents/guardians stress the importance of education within the household makes a world of difference - which I also tend to agree with. My parents made education a top priority in our house and what do you know, I ended up being valedictorian in H.S. and all 4 of us went to college and graduate school. But still, that doesn't let the government off the hook in terms of them finding ways to raise standards of education in the public school system as well as finding avenues to help students aim higher (particularly in urban areas). I don't have the solution, but I do feel (at least in my case) that it starts within the home.
millarci millarci 9 years
I'm a Filipino and I definitely grew up in a household where academics was very important. Actually, at the end, working so hard to be that 'perfect honor student' hurt me academically. I worked hard to 'memorize' facts but I didn't actually 'learn' the facts. I became that typical honor student. At the end, I cheated myself out of a good, solid education. I wish I could turn back time and do it over....
bleached bleached 9 years
"definitely relate" - forgot a word...
bleached bleached 9 years
"There is and has been a lot of competition in the schools in Asia. It seems to me that they don't have the same "no child left behind" mentality that greatly affects our schools. There, the atmosphere is sink or swim." That isn't exactly true. I taught in Japan for 2 years and while it was prevalent in the top schools, I taught in a medium level school and the attitude was very different. And Shop, I HEAR YA! My mom is Filipina (dad is Irish) so I can definitely. Education was top priority in my house. Not going to college wasn't even an option. If I came home with anything less than an 85%, I was in trouble "because I didn't try hard enough"... which, I suppose, in retrospect, was true.
Eilonwy Eilonwy 9 years
hypnoticmix - that's so inspiring...
hypnoticmix hypnoticmix 9 years
My sister-inlaw is Chinese sweet as can be. She and my brother are simply attentive to my niece’s education at every level. Not in a strict overbearing ultimatum sort of way but they do what all parents should do be 100% focused on guiding their children in education. As a result my niece is brilliant not only at academics, but art, music, dance and gymnastics. At the age of (9) she won a gymnastics championship against teen agers. I wouldn't be surprised if she tries out for the next Olympiad. On another note you have my dear beloved mother God rest her soul. First generation Mexican American who knew hard work and labor all of her life. She was not an academic or intellectual in the least but she was a strong woman with a strong work ethic. I remember clearly when I was pre teen maybe (13) and I was starting to think seriously about what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would share some of my thoughts with her about some prestigious position I had in mind and she would very lovingly say to me "oh baby, you can't do that". Her mind was so locked in a blue color mentality that I realized at that moment my mother never new what it was to follow dreams. That realization not to mention my own mother telling me I can't do something sent me into a depression and my grades fell, F's & D's for two years. When I reported for school first day of sophomore year I was summoned by my new councilor Mrs. Pyatt. She sat me down looked over my transcripts took off her glasses looked me straight in the eye and said the four words that changed my life "_ _ _ _ I believe in you". For the next three years nothing but A's and B's and a sprinkle of A+'s here and there, when the first good report card came back home I think my mother squeezed the life out of me and in that moment I could see in her eye’s how sorry she was for the things she said. I guess my point is if we foster our children to be all they can be in most cases they will be. I just witness too many parents on auto pilot when it comes to their children’s education. Some parents like my mother simply come from a place where they don't know any better and worse some parents treat their children as job and not a treasure.
Eilonwy Eilonwy 9 years
(school) as in high school, not college...
Eilonwy Eilonwy 9 years
belief = believe ...I assume it may be similar in the United States. I've never been to school though, with anyone of Mexican descent, so I cannot compare as per the article.
Eilonwy Eilonwy 9 years
I went to a school where I was a visible minority (I'm caucasian). My public school was approximately seventy percent Asian. I belief the higher achievement is due to the conflation of parental and peer expectations and emphasis as well as (if the students or their parents are immigrants) a more advanced, quick-paced math curriculum in certain Asian countries. I had friends who had moved to my country from say, Taiwan, at the age of eleven, and had already learned elements of calculus in their math class in their native country. I used to compete in math competitions, and due to my area as well as the field of study, I would write such exams amongst almost all Asian students. Of course, the majority of the Asian students in my school were from extremely affluent families, which contributed (obviously) to their educational success.
Frank-y-Ava Frank-y-Ava 9 years
EXPECTATIONS EXPECTATIONS EXPECTATIONS!!!!!! That is why the Asian students seem to get better grades and that's why at my school the 1st and 2nd person with the highest GPA where Phillipino and Pakistani. The value education a lot more than the other cultures, I have learned this over my high school days.
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