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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For Cambodians, in particular, stress also results from terrible memories of killing, torture and starvation as the Khmer Rouge savaged their country. The nightmare of those years, says Psychologist Jeanne Nidorf of the University of California at San Diego, produces a "posttraumatic stress disorder that just doesn't go away."

Asking for help is not easy for Asian Americans. "They are likely to say that willpower can resolve problems," explains Psychologist Stanley Sue, who has specialized in their emotional difficulties. He has found that the problems of these young people "are highly submerged" because they have been "taught not to exhibit emotions in public." Nidorf notes that youthful Indochinese are so conditioned to polite behavior that they hesitate to complain. She recalls the case of a Cambodian girl who was given the wrong textbook but said nothing. Because she was afraid to tell the teacher about the error, she suffered for months as she tried to keep up with the class. Indeed, the view of Asian Americans as passive and obedient is a stereotype that teachers tend to reinforce by not urging students to express themselves, says Hunter College's Hune.

To these problems must be added the strain of being poor. In California, at least 50% of Indochinese immigrants are on welfare, and according to the 1980 U.S. census, more than 35% of Vietnamese families in the U.S. are living below the poverty line. One of the toughest jobs facing educators is keeping many of these young people in school. "For every success story," says Hune, "there are also a lot of average students and an increasing number of dropouts." The Boston school system knows that only too well: with an increased number of Southeast Asian teenagers, the dropout rate went up from 14.4% in 1982 to 26.5% in 1985.

Ultimately, assimilation may diminish achievement. The Rumbaut-Ima data from San Diego show lower grade-point averages for Chinese-, Korean- and Japanese- American students whose families speak primarily English at home compared with those whose families do not. The New York Times has reported that a Chicago study of Asian Americans found third-generation students had blended more into the mainstream, had a lower academic performance and were less interested in school.

To some Asian Americans, that is not such a bad thing. Hung Pham, 31, a Vietnamese refugee who attended UCLA, now works as a software engineer. He and his wife have just bought a home near Los Angeles and are talking about having a family. But he worries about the life his children will face. "Too much peer pressure. There are too many material things to distract them," he says. Then he pauses. "If you live in this country, maybe that's the way it should be. If I raised my kids the way my parents raised me, they would be nerds."

If assimilation and other trends mean that the dramatic concentration of superstudents has peaked, talented young Asian Americans have already shown that U.S. education can still produce excellence. The largely successful Asian-American experience is a challenging counterpoint to the charges that U.S. schools are now producing less-educated mainstream students and failing to help underclass blacks and Hispanics. One old lesson apparently still holds. "It really doesn't matter where you come from or what your language is," observes Educational Historian Diane Ravitch. "If you arrive with high aspirations and selfdiscipline, schools are a path to upward mobility." Particularly when there is a close working relationship between the school and the family. "Schools cannot do the job alone," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation. "But schools must work much harder for all parents to be partners in the process."

As for those who fear or resent Asian-American academic accomplishment, their anxieties may be understandable but are unmerited. "It seems to me that having people like this renews our own striving for excellence," observes Emmy Werner, professor of human development at the University of California at Davis. "We shouldn't be threatened, but challenged." Mathematician Cappell, part of a Jewish immigrant success story, is thrilled by the new inheritors. "Their presence," he says, "is going to be a great blessing for society."

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