Why do Asian-Americans excel at math?

Stereotypes, data, statistics, racism, tiger moms… what is this issue really about? Unless you want to be an ostrich and hide your head in the sand — hoping that the assumption behind this question is untrue — you really need to face the issue head-on.

Of course the question both over- and under-generalizes: over because there are plenty of Asian-Americans who do not excel at math, and under because there are plenty of other subjects that Asians excel at in addition to math. But it’s a real phenomenon. All we have to do is look at two examples: 74% of the students admitted to New York City‘s top exam school (Stuyvesant) are Asian, as are 90% of the participants who make it to the state playoffs for the Massachusetts Association of Mathematics Leagues, including students from Weston. A lot of liberals don’t want to talk about it, but we really need to. These are the facts — not alternative facts, not fake news.

Three news items on this topic have surfaced recently:

  • Let’s get one of the way now: the famous lawsuit against Harvard that purported to come from an Asian-American student group but was actually from right-wing white racists. They claim that Harvard discriminates against Asians but they’re really trying to reduce affirmative action opportunities for black and Latinx students. This lawsuit is just a distraction. As Diane Ravitch observed:

This lawsuit was brought not by an authentic Asian American group but by a rabid white neoconservative at the American Enterprise Institute. Edward Blum is astroturfing and using Asian American kids as a cover for his ideological campaign to end affirmative action

  • The second news item is the post by liberal Diane Ravitch, from which the previous quotation was excerpted. Read it!
  • The third item was linked to in that same post: an article in the conservative news site Real Clear Investigations: Why Asians Excel at Scholastic Tests (Money Has Little to Do With It). Its point is straightforward. It explains “why Asian children outperform every other ethnic group on the competitive exams to get into New York’s elite public high schools.” The answer is not, as some people glibly (and racistly, if that word exists) assume, that Asian children are smarter. And it’s not simply that Asian children on average work harder — though that’s part of the picture. The claim is this:

Asian immigrants do enjoy one special advantage: an intimate familiarity with what might be called the test culture. In their native countries, high-stakes standardized tests and assiduous, long-term, almost obsessive preparation for them are part of the national culture.

Is that true? I don’t know. And I’m deeply uncomfortable with lumping together all Asian immigrants from a lot of different cultures, not just China and Korea but also India and Pakistan and Japan and Vietname… I could keep going, but you know what I mean. Nevertheless, something real is going on.


Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston