Parents' Attitudes and Expectations regarding Science Education: Comparisons among American, Chinese-American, and Chinese Families

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ABSTRACT

This study examined the differences in attitudes toward science education among American, Chinese-American, and Chinese parents and students. Parents' expectations for their high school children's science performance were also compared among the three cultural groups. It was found that both Chinese parents and students had more positive attitudes toward science education than did their American counterparts. Chinese parents placed greater emphasis on self-improvement, set higher standards, and more often helped their children to learn science than did American parents. The attitudes of the Chinese-Americans appeared to show the influences of both their Chinese heritage and American culture. Overall, a high positive correlation was found between parents' and students' attitudes toward science education.

Although reports that Asian students greatly surpass their American counterparts on science tests have received attention for many years (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1985; Stigler et al., 1982), our knowledge of the factors responsible for this difference is incomplete. It has been attributed to differences in national educational systems, including the time students spend in school, the time they spend on solving problems while in the classroom, the content of textbooks, and the comprehensiveness of the curriculum (Hess, Chang, & McDevitt, 1987). However, Asian-American students also outperform other American students on tests that measure academic achievement, as well as additional measures of educational accomplishments. An example is the performance of Chinese-Americans in the annual Westinghouse Science Talent Search, in which the top ten students are selected from about 1,300,000 high school seniors nationwide. One to four Chinese-American students have been chosen every year over the past decade. Considering that less than one percent of the population is Chinese-American, they have performed extraordinarily well in science. In explaining why they did so well, a Westinghouse spokesperson said that at least one thing was certain: they all had the strongest possible support and encouragement from their families throughout their school career (Browne, 1986). It is interesting that the same situation exists in other countries as well (Chung & Walkey, 1989).

This suggests that national differences are not due solely to differences in educational systems, but may also reflect differences in culturally transmitted values, beliefs, and behaviors. Clark (1983) and Havighurst and Neugarten (1971) have argued that a family's overall cultural style, not parents' marital status, educational level, income, or social class, greatly determines whether children are prepared to perform well in school.

It is well accepted that parents' expectations have a major effect on children's academic performance (Boocock, 1972; Vollmer, 1986). Henderson (1988) found that this held true across all social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds. However, what must be determined is whether there are cultural differences in such expectations. For example, the cultures and histories of the United States and China differ dramatically, which may affect parents' attitudes toward education and their expectations regarding children's performance in school.

China is an ancient civilization, and for over 2000 years attitudes toward education were strongly influenced by Confucian philosophy. This philosophy placed the scholar in a position of prominence and prestige. According to an old proverb, "Scholars are respected above all." Consequently, education was considered an important route to success (Ridley, 1973). In this cultural environment, intellectuals were highly respected. This tradition of exalting academic accomplishments persists today.

At the same time, respect for scholarly attainment accompanied a high regard for effort. Hard work remained, in most cases, the only means of achieving success (Munro, 1977). …