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Study ties hard work to Asian students’ higher grades. What’s your excuse?

Bloomberg News

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that hard work is the reason why Asian-American students do better in school than their white peers.

But the authors of the study also found that, by some measures, Asian youth may not be as happy. Asians in surveys were less likely to agree with the statement "I feel good about myself," and they reported spending less time with friends and feeling more distant from their parents.

Asian students' better academic performance is often commented on, both in research papers and in high-school locker rooms around the country. Yet the causes of that success have been widely debated. Some scholars have argued that they might be doing better mainly because their parents are better educated, while others have suggested that Asians are simply brighter than their classmates.

Some of the debate has focused on parenting. Amy Chua's book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother attracted national attention -- and controversy -- to the parenting techniques stereotypically associated with Asian households. In an interview, Chua praised the new paper. "It's a very striking and original study with a large database," she said.

The authors of the study, University of Michigan's Yu Xie and Amy Hsin of Queens College, City University of New York, examined two national surveys of students in kindergarten through high school, focusing on data for 4,246 white students and 989 Asian students. The authors compared measures of academic achievement such as students' grades with teachers' responses to questions as to whether their students showed a willingness to work. Hsin and Xie found that the differences in how hard students worked, according to their teachers, accounted for much of the Asian group's better performance in the classroom compared to whites.

The authors also considered other explanations for the Asian students' success. Information about students' intelligence as measured by standardized tests or about their families' socioeconomic status was not nearly as accurate in predicting their grades as their teachers' statements about their study habits. Indeed, it is not clear that Asian students have any advantage over whites in terms of natural thinking ability, and in some cases, Asians do better in school than whites whose parents are wealthier and better educated.

These findings do not conclude the debate, but instead raise even more sensitive questions: Why do Asian students work harder, and can members of groups that do not do as well academically replicate Asians' success by adopting their attitudes?

Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, both professors at Yale Law School, contend the study is evidence that aspects of Asian-American culture are partly responsible for Asian children's good grades. The couple published a new book earlier this year arguing that certain cultural traits can explain the successes of various immigrant groups in the country's history.

"There can be no doubt that these practices and attitudes are not exclusive to Asians, and can be incredibly helpful to people outside those communities," Rubenfeld said.

The couple added that a mere change in attitude would not be enough to eliminate the obstacles confronting black children. "When it comes to America's poorest groups, it's pretty clear what the true causes of poverty are. You have to start with history, you know, centuries of slavery and mass incarceration," Chua said.

But Hsin, one of the authors of the study, warned against applying her results too broadly. "Asian Americans have access to a unique set of resources that are not available to other immigrant groups," she said. "The 'Tiger Mom' thesis, and that whole discussion, falls short."

Hsin, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in the United States and Canada, said that even poor Asian immigrants benefit from having well-educated friends or relatives who can recommend a tutoring program for their children and help them understand the American educational system.

She and Xie found that students who responded in surveys that math was not an innate skill were more likely to work harder. But hard work was much more than the result of a student's belief in her ability to learn.

Jennifer Lee, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, said she sees the paper as "a very powerful and informative piece of empirical research that pushes the debate forward." Yet she also noted what she sees as the limitations of the authors' method. Lee argued that wealth and education among Asian-American communities as a whole have an important effect on how students learn.

Tutoring is freely available in some Korean churches in Los Angeles, noted Lee, who wrote a commentary accompanying Hsin and Xie's research.

"If you are poor and working class, say, Chinese or Korean, your class disadvantage doesn't necessarily have to be as disadvantageous because you will have access to other ethnic resources," Lee said. "That kind of thing is not going to be measured in any kind of quantitative study."

Lee criticizes Chua's work in her commentary and elsewhere, but she does not believe that strict parenting is to blame for the fact that young Asians can seem unhappy compared to whites.

Lee argued that these stresses are the result of the expectations placed on Asian children by society as a whole as much as of those placed on them by their parents, noting that even positive stereotypes can have negative consequences and that the United States remains a racially stratified country.