How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement: Understanding the Truth Behind the Myths Is Essential for All Learners, Including Asian Americans

By Zhao, Yong; Qiu, Wei | Phi Delta Kappan, January 2009 | Go to article overview

How Good Are the Asians? Refuting Four Myths about Asian-American Academic Achievement: Understanding the Truth Behind the Myths Is Essential for All Learners, Including Asian Americans


Zhao, Yong, Qiu, Wei, Phi Delta Kappan


They have three to five times their proportionate share of college faculty, architects, scientists, teachers, engineers, and physicians. They are over-represented among winners of National Merit Scholarships, U.S. Presidential Scholarships, Arts Recognition and Talent Search scholars, and Westinghouse Science Talent Search scholars. They are overrepresented at American's most prestigious universities (Flynn 1991), constituting roughly 50% of the freshmen at the University of California at Berkeley and 10% to 30% of students in many other elite universities (Arenson 2007). They score higher on the SAT and ACT, especially in math. In published "school report cards" mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, they perform much better than other minority groups.

They are called "the model minority." They are Asian Americans.

But, at Cornell University, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims since 1996 have been Asian or Asian American, and a survey at Cornell in 2005 indicated that Asian-American/Asian students seriously considered or attempted suicide at higher-than-average rates (Ramanujan 2006). What is wrong with them? They should be content and happy. After all, they are the model for all other minorities and immigrants.

Much of what has been said about Asian Americans is myth. In recent years, these myths have been strengthened by another set of myths about Asians, especially East Asians, because of their performance in international comparative studies and the economic achievement of these countries.

The myths hurt Asian Americans, a rapidly growing population in American schools. They mask the many problems Asian students encounter in school and society. They justify overlooking the many Asian students who do not fit the stereotype. The myths hurt other minority groups. They are used to deny racism--if the Asians can do it, then race is not a factor in America, so the logic goes. The myths also can hurt education in general as the Asian way of education is imitated--evidenced by the growing popularity of different versions of cram schools in the U.S. and praise for the Asian education system by American education leaders--without consideration of its negative consequences.

Thus, returning some truth to these myths is important.

MYTH #1: ASIAN AMERICANS HAVE SUPERIOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT.

Some subgroups of Asian Americans, particularly East Asians, do perform better in a number of areas than other ethnic groups. Chinese Americans are overrepresented in many of the nation's elite universities, receive higher SAT scores in mathematics, are overrepresented among finalists of National Merit Scholars and other recognitions, and are less likely to lag behind their age group.

Other Asian subgroups do not have the same performance. For instance, the 2007 National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) data show that Cambodian and Hmong students had a higher dropout rate (7%) than did Chinese (2%) and Korean students (2%). Chinese young adults who were foreign born had higher dropout rates than did those of the same subgroups who were U.S. natives (NCES 2007).

Moreover, there is an issue of gender equity. According to the 2002 U.S. Census data, about 10% of Asian/Pacific Islander women have less than a 9th-grade education, more than twice the percentage for non-Hispanic whites (4%), while the percentages for Asian/Pacific Islander men are close between those for other Asians (5%) and whites (4%) (Reeves and Bennett 2003).

Even East Asian Americans do not perform equally well in all subjects (Rohrlick et al. 1998). For example, their SAT verbal scores have been consistently lower than their scores in mathematics (Flynn 2007), though these results should be interpreted cautiously due to the confounding factors of language barriers and cultural bias. East Asian Americans earn 45,008 bachelor degrees in the social sciences and humanities, disproportionately fewer than whites (668,782), as well as blacks (84,568) and Hispanics (72,088) (NSF 2007), while they generally excel in quantitative skills and outnumber whites in engineering and computer science disciplines (Hune and Chan 1997). …

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