The Asian American Achievement Paradox, a new book by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou, prompted New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to pen a provocative column on Sunday. Kristof agreed that “the success of Asian-Americans is a tribute to hard work, strong families and passion for education,” but went on to caution that “because one group can access the American dream does not mean that all groups can.”
I’m not that bleak. Though nobody’s education system can completely compensate for heedless parents, slothful ways, and an apathetic attitude, the truth is that policy does matter. Schools can do more than Kristof seems to think to help more kids climb the ladder toward the American dream.
My new book with Brandon Wright, Failing Our Brightest Kids: The Global Challenge of Educating High-Ability Students, looks closely at why American public education has been doing such a lackluster job helping smart children reach their full potential; how this failure of will, policy, and program is particularly devastating to high-ability youngsters from disadvantaged circumstances; and how a number of other countries do better than us.
The Asian nations in our study (Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) do all of this especially well. And yes, family pressure and education-crazed cultures help a great deal. These are places where plenty of poor parents—who may not be well educated themselves—strongly push their daughters and sons to succeed in school, get into selective high schools, and proceed to top universities and good jobs. But these Asian countries aren’t the only ones producing enviable results, and culture is not the only variable that drives this success. The universal screening of all kids in primary school (in Asian countries like Singapore, but also in Western Australia) plays a part as well. So do supplemental learning opportunities and “gifted” classes that begin in the middle grades, as we found in both Korea and Switzerland. And for families that can afford them, so do after-school tutoring and “cram” schools, which are designed to prepare kids for entry into selective high schools. These high schools themselves are found throughout much of Asia, but they could be implemented anywhere.
Recent research by economists Laura Giuliano and David Card makes clear that universal screening is far more effective at moving minority students into “gifted and talented” programs than waiting for pushy parents. Another of their excellent papers finds that such programs—where they exist—work especially well for minority youngsters.
But such programs are scarce in American education, especially in schools full of poor kids. (One way Giuliano and Card were able to do their research was by examining outcomes in a major district after it ended its universal screening scheme and comparing them with outcomes when everybody got screened.) We’ve concentrated on boosting low-achieving kids to “proficient,” but we’ve sorely neglected those who are already at or way above that mark. This isn’t so harmful for upper-middle-class kids with motivated parents, extra resources, and competent help in navigating the education system and tracking down the best it has to offer. But it’s devastating for able kids from disadvantaged circumstances and disorganized families—the ones who depend on public education to help them access the necessary education resources.
We should, of course, applaud the success of Asian Americans. But plenty of other Americans have the ability to succeed, too, if only the education system would help them do so.