Asian American academic success is impressive. Every year, the vast majority of national spelling bee finalists are South Asian American. Asian American students on the Harvard campus have, on average, higher SAT scores than their white peers. Nearly three-fourths of students at New York City’s elite Stuyvesant High School are Asian American.
When we see these outcomes, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming that these students’ families value educational success more than other families do. One report from Harvard claims that Asian American families “prioritize education” (presumably more than other groups) and that this partly explains Asian American success.
But we should discard this old stereotype.
The idea that Asian American parents value educational success more than other parents do does not hold up to scrutiny. About three-fourths of parents in all racial groups believe that a college education will lead their children to success. And when researchers asked American parents of school-age children how important it is that their children do well in school, most gave it the highest level of importance; in fact, on average, Black, Latinx and Asian parents ranked it as more important than white parents did.
So, if Asian American academic success is not explained by parental values and beliefs about the importance of school success and college, what does explain it?
Quite simply, it is many Asian Americans’ resources and strategies for getting ahead.
Parents may all want educational success for their children, but we have different ways of helping them achieve that success. Aside from financial resources (which we know play a big role, both in providing opportunities in school and in helping pay for college), strategies are rooted in lived experiences — what our parents were able to do, what we saw in our neighborhoods growing up, what our older siblings and cousins did and what we learned in school and in the communities we’ve lived in as adults.
Sociologist Ann Swidler calls these strategies “cultural repertoires.” And even while many parents aspire to have their children go to college, our cultural repertoires for attaining that goal are different.
The differences became abundantly clear to me in my interviews with immigrant Asian and U.S.-born white parents living in the same affluent East Coast suburb for my new book, “Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools.”
Families in that suburb had similarly high levels of economic resources to support their children’s educational success, but their strategies were different.
Parents may all want educational success for their children, but we have different ways of helping them achieve that success.
Immigrant parents told me about how they grew up, and how it shaped their expectations for their own children. For many Indian and Chinese immigrant parents, that meant afterschool math classes and always choosing the most rigorous academic courses.
Supplementary education is the norm in Asia for college-bound students, and it’s not limited to well-off families. Going to academic tutoring after school in China and India is just what one does if your parents can afford it: It’s what it takes to get into a top college.
Extracurricular excellence, however, does not matter for college admissions in Asia, and in fact a study of students in the U.S. and South Korea found that playing sports is associated with higher academic achievement in the U.S. but lower achievement in South Korea.
Perhaps that’s why when the immigrant Asian parents I spoke with saw their children struggling to juggle after-school activities with academic demands, many implored them to give up the extracurriculars.
“I told my son so many times to leave swimming because he was not doing his homework,” one Indian mom of a varsity swimmer who did multiple AP classes told me. (She needn’t have worried: He went on to one of the top twenty most-selective colleges in the country.)
But in the U.S., strategies for educational success are not just about academics. The white parents I met who grew up middle class and attended selective colleges here believed that academic excellence alone would not get their children into a top college.
As a result, they were more likely to suggest that their children make room in their schedules for sports, clubs and music, even if that meant declining a second or third honors or AP class.
“We only allow a child to take either one AP or one honors [class] every year, because our kids have always been very, very involved in music and drama,” one white mom told me.
And many of their children did indeed excel: I met the mom of a teen playing on a national sports team and many others who paid for hotel rooms and flights so their children could participate in high-level sports tournaments. (Most of their kids, too, went on to highly selective colleges.)
All the parents I spoke with in this suburban town thought carefully about how they could support their children’s success while protecting their emotional well-being.
They knew their children couldn’t do everything, and emphasized the highest levels of achievement in the domain they understood and felt would serve their children best.
For immigrant Asian parents, that usually meant academics. For U.S.-born white parents, it was extracurriculars, even as they ensured their children were excellent students — although maybe not the very top in their high-achieving town.
So what’s the harm in the positive stereotype of Asian American parents valuing education more than other parents do?
Positive stereotypes can harm others, because positive and negative stereotypes go hand-in-hand. Stereotypes about statistically academically lower-achieving racial groups — Black and Latinx students — have contributed to beliefs that their lower academic achievement levels are a result of their parents not caring about education rather than a lack of economic and educational opportunities and other policies that exacerbate rather than attenuate inequality in academic achievement.
A recent study makes the link between positive and negative stereotypes clear: Researchers found that when more Asian American students were in a class, teachers’ assessments of their Black students declined.
The teachers’ lower assessments were unrelated to the actual test scores of the Black and Asian American students in their classes. Stereotypes about race and academic skills probably played a role.
So when we see Asian, Black, white and Latinx children achieving different levels of academic success, rather than concluding that their parents value education differently, let’s consider instead how their parents’ economic resources and cultural strategies for success, along with racial stereotypes, shape the students’ educational opportunities and outcomes.
Values only go so far in helping us understand what people do.
Natasha Warikoo is professor of sociology at Tufts University and a former Guggenheim fellow. “Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools” is her latest book.
This story about Asian American academic success was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.