Education: The New Whiz Kids

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

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Ted Thai

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Such achievements are reflected in the nation's best universities, where math, science and engineering departments have taken on a decidedly Asian character. At the University of Washington, 20% of all engineering students are of Asian descent; at Berkeley the figure is 40%. To win these places, Asian-American students make the SAT seem as easy as taking a driving test. Indeed, 70% of Asian-American 18-year-olds took the SAT in 1985, in contrast to only 28% of all 18-year-olds. The average math score of Asian-American high school seniors that year was 518 (of a possible 800), 43 points higher than the general average.

This inclination for math and science is partly explained by the fact that Asian-American students who began their educations abroad arrived in the U.S. with a solid grounding in math but little or no knowledge of English. They are also influenced by the promise of a good job after college. "Asians feel there will be less discrimination in areas like math and science because they will be judged more objectively," says Shirley Hune, an education professor at Hunter College. And, she notes, the return on the investment in education "is more immediate in something like engineering than with a liberal arts degree."

The stereotype of Asian Americans as narrow mathematical paragons is unfair, however, and inaccurate. Many are far from being liberal arts illiterates, according to a study that will be published this fall by Sociologists Ruben G. Rumbaut and Kenji Ima of San Diego State University. They found that in overall grade-point averages, virtually every Asian-American group outscored the city's white high school juniors and seniors. Many Asian-American students excel in the arts, from photography to music. New York City's famed Juilliard School has a student body estimated to be 25% Asian and Asian American. Juilliard President Joseph Polisi rejects the view that Asian students are uniquely talented. "It's not just being Asian that makes them good musicians," he says. "It's a matter of dedication, family support and discipline."

Successful Asian-American students commonly credit the influence of parents who are determined that their children take full advantage of what the American educational system has to offer. For many parents, personal sacrifice is involved. Daniel Pak, an 18-year-old from Dallas entering Harvard next month, shines in everything he does, from math to violin. His brother Tony, 20, is studying physics at M.I.T. Their parents had such colleges in mind when they moved to the U.S. in 1970. The boys' father gave up his career as a professor of German literature in South Korea. Unable to get an academic position in the U.S., he eventually found work as a house painter.

A telling measure of parental attention is homework. A 1984 study of San Francisco-area schools by Stanford Sociologist Sanford Dornbusch found that Asian-American students put in an average of eleven hours a week, compared with seven hours by other students. Westinghouse Prizewinner John Kuo recalls that in Taiwan he was accustomed to studying two or three hours a night. "Here we had half an hour at the most." To make up the difference, John and his two brothers were often given extra assignments at home. "Asian parents spend much more time with their children than American parents do, and it helps," says his brother David.

Some Asian Americans may be pushing their children too hard. Says a Chinese-American high schooler in New York City: "When you get an 80, they say, 'Why not an 85?' If you get an 85, it's 'Why not a 90?' " Many Asian- American parents even dictate their children's college courses, with an eye to a desirable future. New York City Youth Counselor Amy Lee, 26, remembers that * when she changed her field from premed to psychology, her parents were upset, but pressed her at least to get a Ph.D. "They wanted a doctor in the family, and they didn't care what kind it was."

Many Asian Americans come from an educated elite in their native countries. Their children seem to do especially well. Julian Stanley, a Johns Hopkins psychology professor, studied 292 preteen high scorers on the math portion of the SAT, nearly a quarter of them Asian Americans. He found that 71% of the Asian-Americans' fathers and 21% of their mothers had a doctorate or a medical degree, vs. 39% of the fathers and 10% of the mothers of the non-Asians.

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