Education: The New Whiz Kids

Why Asian Americans are doing so well, and what it costs them

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Ted Thai

Some are refugees from sad countries torn apart by war. Others are children of the stable middle class whose parents came to the U.S. in search of a better life. Some came with nothing, not even the rudiments of English. Others came with skills and affluence. Many were born in the U.S. to immigrant parents.

No matter what their route, young Asian Americans, largely those with Chinese, Korean and Indochinese backgrounds, are setting the educational pace for the rest of America and cutting a dazzling figure at the country's finest schools. Consider some of this fall's freshman classes: at Brown it will be 9% Asian American, at Harvard nearly 14%, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 20%, the California Institute of Technology 21% and the University of California, Berkeley an astonishing 25%.

By almost every educational gauge, young Asian Americans are soaring. They are finishing way above the mean on the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test and, according to one comprehensive study of San Diego-area students, outscoring their peers of other races in high school grade-point averages. They spend more time on their homework, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Education found, take more advanced high school courses and graduate with more credits than other American students. A higher percentage of these young people complete high school and finish college than do white American students. Trying to explain why so many Asian-American students are superachievers, Harvard Psychology Professor Jerome Kagan comes up with this simple answer: "To put it plainly, they work harder."

All this would appear to be another success story for the American dream, an example of the continuing immigrant urge to succeed and of the nation's ability to thrive on the dynamism of its new citizens. But there is also a troubling side to the story. Asian Americans consider the "model minority" image a misleading stereotype that masks individuality and conceals real problems. Many immigrant families, especially the Indochinese refugees who arrived in the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975, remain mired in poverty. Their war-scarred children, struggling with a new language and culture, often drop out of school. Further, the majority of Asian-American students do not reach the starry heights of the celebrated few, and an alarming number are pushing themselves to the emotional brink in their quest for excellence. Many also detect signs of resentment among non-Asians, an updated "yellow peril" fear. In particular, the country's best universities are accused of setting admissions quotas to restrict the numbers of Asian Americans on campus.

Even with these problems, many Asian-American students are making the U.S. education system work better for them than it has for any other immigrant group since the arrival of East European Jews began in the 1880s. Like the Asians, the Jews viewed education as the ticket to success. Both groups "feel an obligation to excel intellectually," says New York University Mathematician Sylvain Cappell, who as a Jewish immigrant feels a kinship with his Asian-American students. The two groups share a powerful belief in the value of hard work and a zealous regard for the role of the family.

The term Asian American covers a variety of national, cultural and religious heritages. In only two decades Asian Americans have become the fastest-growing U.S. minority, numbering more than 5 million, or about 2% of the population; in 1960 the figures were 891,000 and 0.5%. Then in 1965 a new immigration law did away with exclusionary quotas. That brought a surge of largely middle- class Asian professionals — doctors, engineers and academics from Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, India and the Philippines — seeking economic opportunity. In 1975, after the end of the Viet Nam War, 130,000 refugees, mostly from the educated middle class, began arriving. Three years later a second wave of 650,000 Indochinese started their journey from rural and poor areas to refugee camps to the towns and cities of America.

As the children of these immigrants began moving up through the nation's schools, it became clear that a new class of academic achievers was emerging. One dramatic indication: since 1981, 20 Asian-American students have been among the 70 scholarship winners in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, the nation's oldest and most prestigious high school science competition. One of this year's 40 finalists — out of 1,295 entrants — was Taiwan-born David Kuo, 17, of New York City. The name is a familiar one to the competition's organizers: David's brothers John and Mark were finalists in 1985 and 1986. "My parents always equated a good education with doing well in life, so we picked up on that," says David.

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