The Pursuit of Elite High Schools and Colleges among Second-Generation Korean Americans*

By Young, Dae | Development and Society, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Pursuit of Elite High Schools and Colleges among Second-Generation Korean Americans*


Young, Dae, Development and Society


This study examines the educational achievements and attainments of 1.5 and second-generation Korean Americans. Drawing from the 1998 New York and the 2004 IIMMLA surveys as well as forty follow-up in-depth interviews (selected among the 1998 New York survey participants), the study finds that second-generation Korean Americans are attaining high levels of education similar to the educational attainments of their immigrant parents. A high proportion of second-generation Korean Americans also attend elite high schools and colleges, giving the impression of them as model minorities. Closer analysis, however, suggests a more complex dynamic at work, one that involves Korean immigrants' selective educational and occupational background and the particularities of adolescent life. School-related factors, especially teachers' expectations, peers, and degree of socializing, have considerable impact, both positive and negative, on the educational attainments of second-generation Korean Americans.

Keywords: Educational attainment, Second-Generation Korean Americans, Elite high schools and colleges, socioeconomic status

Introduction

Asian American students have received a great deal of media and scholarly attention for their educational accolades. Researchers find that on average Asian American students receive higher grades (GPA) and score better in standardized math tests relative to other students (Hirschman and Wong 1986; Fejgin 1995; Steinberg 1996; Fuligni 1997; Goyette and Xie 1999; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Kao and Thompson 2003; Xie and Goyette 2003, 2004; Sakamoto and Xie 2006). Asian American students also frequently reach the top spots in the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search (now known as the Intel Science Talent Search), and they are overrepresented in many prestigious college campuses across the nation (Brand 1987; Fong 2002).1

Mainstream media and the general public usually single out Asian (or Confucian) culture and strict parenting as the basis for Asian American academic prowess. In her recent best seller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua's book has stirred a fierce controversy over the merits of strict upbringing in children's educational success. While the debate has been over the virtues of strict parenting, this paper, examining the educational achievements and attainments of second-generation Korean Americans, actually calls into question those cultural explanations of Korean American (and Asian American) educational success prevalent in mainstream media circles. Although parental pressure for elite high schools and colleges boosts the prospects of second-generation Korean academic success, the paper argues that this group's educational success springs from Korean immigrants' middle-class status and their determination to establish an academic environment for their children. Endowed with middle-class status, along with success in entrepreneurship, intact families, and emphasis on education, the chances for educational and occupational success for second-generation Korean Americans are significantly improved (Kasinitz et al. 2008). In addition, the paper scrutinizes the role that school-related factors, including time spent on homework, teachers' expectations, and peer groups, play in second-generation's educational achievements and attainments. I end the paper with a discussion of the costs of pressures for academic achievement on these young adults, including mental health problems, suicide, and low selfesteem.

Cultural and Structural Explanations of Asian American Educational Success

The most prominent explanation of Asian American educational achievement and attainment in popular discourse is the cultural explanation. This theoretical perspective claims that Asian American students excel academically because Asian culture, influenced by Confucianism, stresses hard work, respects authority, and values education. Asian culture is conducive to educational achievement because these Asian values, attitudes, beliefs, and practices fit well with middle-class American culture (Caplan, Choy, and Whitmore 1991; Sue and Okasaki 1995; Xie and Goyette 2004).

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