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Success in the Asian Formula?

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The "competitiveness" alarm has been sounded—and now the search is on to find a successful formula to make American students more competitive in the classroom and on the world stage. While federal initiatives and school reform ideas abound, many are looking to the academic success of a high-achieving Asian subculture as a model.

In this Education Week Commentary, Deanna Kuhn argues that the Asian recipe for academic excellence, which includes a strict work ethic and a high level of parental involvement, may actually sacrifice students' personal commitment to learning as an end in itself. Pressuring kids simply to bring home top grades, argues Kuhn, encourages them to value their education less, not more.

What do you think? Does the Asian education success formula have a downside? Or should it be viewed as a model for American educators and parents to replicate?

23 Comments

Constantly the US seems to want to compare itself with other countries. Get real. According to an article in the Washington Post the suicide rate among Asians is rising. An article in Womensnews.org date 11/06/03 showed domestic violence against educated women was extremely high and this by highly educated husbands/men. This doesn't sound like a success story to me. What kind of social life do they have? Any psychologist will tell you this is very important in a person's overall success in life. We are looking in the wrong place for the answer. We should be looking to the successful teachers in the US and figuring out what makes them good teachers and implementing those ideas as well as what is the best way to spend our education dollars to help the students. Look at the overall picture and not just the surface.

No education system anywhere is perfect. But that should not prevent us from being interested, taking a close look and even experimenting with some promising policies and practices. There are reasons why some students outperform American students on some highly respected international assessments, such as TIMSS. Knowing more about these reasons ultimately could be in our best interests.

For example, East Asian teachers work much more collaboratively on the development of "perfect" lessons than teachers in the U.S.. Moreover, the curriculum tends to be more rigorous, in depth and conceptual. As Al Shanker once commented American curriculum tends to be "a mile long and an inch deep." Everyone has something to learn, even Americans.

So, yes, those of us who want to improve public in America, may learn something by looking beyond our own backyards.

The Asian formula works because parents value education. They pass that belief on to their children who come to school eager to learn rather than eager to be entertained. American students need to understand that real life isn't a always fun and games. They need to understand that being successful requires putting forth some effort and that this is particularly important when dealing with subjects that one doesn't particularly enjoy. When and if our society gets back to that mindset we will see a dramatic change for the better in student achievement. We don't need to reach the extremes that some of the Asian cultures encompass, but we definitely need to get back to the reality that one needs to put some value and personal effort into one's education.

Given the recently published reports in NSTA journals and elsewhere of the anti-competitive position the US has placed itself in due to poor science and math education, it has to become an imperative to examine our competitors. Who, economically, politically, maybe even militarily, are our competitors today? Perhaps we could say the Al-Quaida collective, the major Euro powers, and? China, Japan, maybe even India, if you consider competition for technology jobs.
So, I suggest a close look at their systems of education is a good idea!

When making comparisons, we have to be careful to compare apples to apples, instead apples to oranges. Don't forget we teach every child even those who are not citizens in the U.S. Statistics used in making either argument for American education being in the dumps or climbing the mountain of learning need to be carefully scrutinized for their application in these arguments. The questions I have are: What standards/compentencies are these countries developing their curriculum around? What standards/compentecies are these international assessments measuring? Which are we as a country, state or local school government do we consider important to our society? In the US we have a strong economy and an excellent work force due to career and technical & academic education working together on students becoming productive workers, consumers, parents etc.. Where will top test scores take students if they cannot function in society? Let us look at new ideas etc.. in their proper context and apply those we feel can really help students become productive, happy people.

I am unclear on which Asian sub-culture you are referring to. I know (having visited there and being married to a man from there) that in South Korea students attend tutorial classes after school, and they attend school on Saturday mornings. They compete for placement in prestigious high schools and colleges. However, the Asian kids I know in the USA (Korean and Japanese) place high value on their academic achievement and tend to avoid media and pop culture. They participate in sports as well as church, school, and community organizations, and they have active social lives. If they devalue their education, it certainly is not evident by their continuation in post-graduate studies. If they lose their childhood, it is not evident in their ability to occupy themselves without the aid of electronic stimuli or to giggle and enjoy themselves. They remind me of the children that I grew up with in the 1950s and 60s...serious about school, respectful, and resourceful. Unfortunately, those qualities seem to be lacking in many of our students who seem to be motivated by being the loudest, most athletic, or best dressed without a mind toward learning and doing well in school. Much time is lost on counseling and learning to get along rather than on learning content and applications of knowledge. I don't think the Asian models are so bad...but they are not the ultimate goal either.

I am unclear on which Asian sub-culture you are referring to. I know (having visited there and being married to a man from there) that in South Korea students attend tutorial classes after school, and they attend school on Saturday mornings. They compete for placement in prestigious high schools and colleges. However, the Asian kids I know in the USA (Korean and Japanese) place high value on their academic achievement and tend to avoid media and pop culture. They participate in sports as well as church, school, and community organizations, and they have active social lives. If they devalue their education, it certainly is not evident by their continuation in post-graduate studies. If they lose their childhood, it is not evident in their ability to occupy themselves without the aid of electronic stimuli or to giggle and enjoy themselves. They remind me of the children that I grew up with in the 1950s and 60s...serious about school, respectful, and resourceful. Unfortunately, those qualities seem to be lacking in many of our students who seem to be motivated by being the loudest, most athletic, or best dressed without a mind toward learning and doing well in school. Much time is lost on counseling and learning to get along rather than on learning content and applications of knowledge. I don't think the Asian models are so bad...but they are not the ultimate goal either.

I alway cringe when I read articles like this and the usual stereotyping comments.
I suggest a reading of Professor Amy Lee's book, The Myth of the Model Minority for a more complete and complex take on Asian American youth. And yes, they, too are American. I also suggest that you read Laurece Steinberg's book, Beyond the Classroom where he disputes the claim that Asian Ameican parents are highly involved in their children's education or schools. His book takes a longitudianl approach to looking at school achievement and says that black parents are more involved, but, as we know, without the high achievement outcome.
The question, to me, thn becomes what is differnet about the groups, and does public perception (including educators) play a role in expectations, and ultimately, outcome?
I also want to add tht I believe, until proved wrong, that all parents, regardless of ethnicity value their childrens schooling.
I also believe that children and their parents respond differently to their educational experiences based on past group history in the USA.

I sincerely hope, in the not too distant future, we will stop making excuses for the poor performance and lack of motivation of a large number of American students under the pretense that the American education system promotes more initiative, creativity, and critical thinking than the Asian model. There is nothing arbitrary about the connection between investment in education and better life options and higher social economic status. Hard work in education is what will transform the lives of many children and allow them to participate to the fullest degree in life. Parental attitude on the importance of education is critical in influencing their children’s attitude and behavior. In this area, I believe we have a lot to learn from Asian parents.

From my observations in middle school and high school classroom, I have noticed that quite a few teachers demand more from their Asian students versus the other students. Students react to the teacher's expections and do what the teacher expects of them without the teacher ever having to say words. I work in an area that is primarily Asian. On Saturdays and during the summer, the children are not out with their friends or in summer camp. The children are in parent paid for summer school learning and becoming proficient in two languages. The parents and teachers seem to stress that this is what is expected. I do not think that the 'Asian educational experience' is perfect. I feel that children need to have a balance between school and enjoyment, but maybe we can learn something from the Asian model.

In my opinion, if we go back about 4o+ years did we not have a better work ethic. Work ethic for all areas of our lives has decreased significantly. If it is not in the home and a value in the community as a whole what can we expect from a student, black white orange or green. It is about values.

When I read the article on Asian Success formula, I thought it would be another innocent educational article that would lead to intellectual reflections among educators. This has been the case with most everyone who has identified themselves by name and affiliation and I thank you. I did not realize the article would lead to racist innuendos.

Donna, who hides behind a first name and identifies herself as a parent, says that the suicide rate among Asians is rising. I am sure this is true just as gas, food, and travel prices are rising, but here are the real statistics.

From Eastern Michigan University comes a report, which can be found at http://www.easternecho.com/cgi-bin/story.cgi?1657, stating that the suicide rate among 15 to 24-year olds (all races), since 1950, has triple for men and doubled for women in that age group.

According to a Cornell University study, http://www.rso.cornell.edu/mindsmatter/Asian_American_Mental_Health_at_Cornell.pdf, the overall suicide rate per 100,000 for white Americans is 12.6 and it is 7.0 for Asian Americans.

The 2004 Fact Sheet on “Suicide: Adolescents and Young Adults” from the National Adolescent Health Information Center shows that among Americans, the highest suicide rates are with the Native Americans and the Native Alaskans. Asian/Pacific Islanders and Hispanic youth are the two groups least likely to commit suicide.

Donna quotes a Women’s News article stating that domestic violence against educated women is extremely high by highly educated husbands/men. She cleverly uses the juxtaposition of her sentence to implicate Asian husbands/men. I do not deny that Asian husbands/men commit domestic violence, but here’s what the article, which can be found at,
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1591/context/archive, really says.

The article is about a study from the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women and was a cross-cultural study across regions, communities and classes (meaning all nationalities) on violence against women. It uses as examples, from its world study, citing one case of domestic violence in India, Philippines, Chile, and Egypt. The latter two countries are not in Asia.

And then Donna insinuates, “What kind of social life do they (as in “those people”) have? In one feel swoop, she demonizes over three billion people, the population of the people living in Asia, or 57 percent of the world’s population, as having a questionable social life.

We did not ask for the label, “model minority.” We do not appreciate being stereotyped. We have not asked to be studied and criticized, but the last time I looked, for the most part, we had intact families and our families had family dinner time, which is the social center-piece of our culture. Walk into a Chinese restaurant, especially on a Sunday night, and you will find three, if not four generations, sitting at a large, round dinner table, - that is, if they can find a table for all the Asian families and their guests vying for tables - with the young children socially conversing with and being respectful of their elders – and teachers. This does not make us good people or better people than other people. That’s just us. The family is our social structure and our culture and it would please us most if other cultures, who we respect, would stop stereotyping us incorrectly and then using that stereotype to demonize us.

We are educators and we do not demonize the diversity of children under our loving care, no matter their culture. Our role is to put smiles on young faces, hope in young hearts, and dreams in young minds.

Harry K. Wong

I agree with Dr. Wittmer's above sentiments.

Consider a high school student who is tardy to class, and sporting his earphones and cap. He has to be requested or reminded or instructed again - as he has been numerous times before - to take off his cap and earphones. Then, he places these items on his desk. The teacher waits a minute or two, then asks him to put them away so that he may take out a sheet of paper and pencil and start the initial assignment most of his peers have completed. The student is miffed at this request, and proceeds to disrespectfully talk back to teacher. Then it likely escalates into an administrative referral. It's a wearying thing to have to deal with. (No judge or businessperson/employer would tolerate it in the courtroom or place of employment. They'd jail or fire 'em.) Other students present are respectful and focussed on their work. What gives with this misbehaving adolescent? No doubt readers here can present their own vignettes from "laboring in the vineyards."

Teachers are lectured by newspaper editors and pedagogical theorists to "engage" students' interest. (These folks need to hire on incognito to teach and see if they can "walk the talk.") I perceive that such lecturing is based on the unstated premise and assumption that students are passive factors in the educational equation, and there is little acknowledgement of student personal responsibility and accountability. I'm willing to bear my portion of the "accountability" obsession. However, it strikes me that the more fundamental problem is one of students' self-discipline, work ethic, behavior, courtesy, cooperation, and arrival at school ready to learn, regardless of however well-prepared and highly-skilled the teacher is in the arts and sciences of "engagement." People don't enter the teaching profession enamored of the prospect of chronically having to endure this disrespect and misbehavior. I don't recall such time, energy and resources having to be supplied to deal with discipline when I was that age. One reads that 50% of teachers certified via traditional programs have left the profession after five years.

When the U.S. begins to get serious about education then and only then will its students begin to take education serious. The lack of respect and preparation that educators must routinely deal with is ridiculous. Our society makes excuses for its failure to truly nurture its youngsters so that they will grow into adults who understand the value of hard work, respect authority without becoming mindless robots, and truly know that there is a correlation between hard work and good results. Since our society in general does not model these values (Alfie Kohn is probably laboring hard at some article or book that decries the belief that children should be expected to work hard at anything), its hypocritical for any of us to criticize students for living what they see.

When the U.S. begins to get serious about education then and only then will its students begin to take education serious. The lack of respect and preparation that educators must routinely deal with is ridiculous. Our society makes excuses for its failure to truly nurture its youngsters so that they will grow into adults who understand the value of hard work, respect authority without becoming mindless robots, and truly know that there is a correlation between hard work and good results. Since our society in general does not model these values, or lives them but does not see their value for children (Alfie Kohn is probably laboring hard at some article or book that decries the belief that children should be expected to work hard at anything), its hypocritical for any of us to criticize students for living what they see.

When I read the article on Asian Success Formula, I thought it would be another innocent educational article that would lead to intellectual reflections among educators. Yet, Donna/parent has chosen this to demean Asians by implying that they are suicidal, wife-beaters, and socially challenged.

According to a Cornell University study, http://www.rso.cornell.edu/mindsmatter/Asian_American_Mental_Health_at_Cornell.pdf, the overall suicide rate per 100,000 for white Americans is 12.6 and it is 7.0 for Asian Americans.

The 2004 Fact Sheet on “Suicide: Adolescents and Young Adults” from the National Adolescent Health Information Center shows that among Americans, the highest suicide rates are with the Native Americans and the Native Alaskans. Asian/Pacific Islanders and Hispanic youth are the two groups least likely to commit suicide.

Donna quotes a Women’s News article to implicate Asian husbands/men of committing domestic violence against educated women. I do not deny that Asian husbands/men commit domestic violence, but here’s what the article, which can be found at,
http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1591/context/archive, really says.

From a cross-cultural world study, across regions, communities and classes, the Washington-based International Center for Research on Women reported on violence against women. As examples, it cited one case each of domestic violence in India, Philippines, Chile, and Egypt. This was a world study and the last two countries are not in Asia.

And then Donna insinuates, “What kind of social life do they (as in “those people”) have? In one fell swoop, she demonizes over three billion people, the population of the people living in Asia, or 57 percent of the world’s population, as having a questionable social life.

The last time I looked, for the most part, we had intact families and our families had family dinner time, which is the social center-piece of our culture. Walk into a Chinese restaurant, especially on a Sunday night, and you will find three, if not four generations, sitting at a large, round dinner table, with the young children socially conversing with and being respectful of their elders – and teachers. This does not make us good people or better people than other people. It’s our culture. The family is our social structure and our culture and it would please us most if other cultures, who we respect, would stop stereotyping us incorrectly and then using that stereotype to demonize us.

We are educators and we do not demonize the diversity of children under our loving care, no matter their culture. Our role is to put smiles on young faces, hope in young hearts, and dreams in young minds.

Harry K. Wong

Many years ago I bought into the commonly held belief that the education provided by Asian countries and Asian parents was superior to that provided by American parents and teachers. Then one day I met a Japanese man who had moved his family from Japan to Fullerton, California. This is what he had to say when I expressed the belief that the Japanese system of education was superior to the American system:

"Your American educational system is the best in the world."

"Ours!" I gasped, thinking I had misunderstood him. "Why?"

"I have two sons," he began. "In Japan my older son, who is academically inclined, did well. My other son, who was not very good in school, faced an uncertain future. He was looked upon with disdain by teachers, fellow students and other parents. Then I moved my family to Fullerton. At the public high school my academically talented son continued to do well in the honors program. He went on to college and became a doctor. My younger son also found his niche. He became interested in art. At Fullerton High School his unique talents were respected and nurtured. He went to art school and today is a graphic artist in Beverly Hills. He makes more money than his older brother. So, you see, in this country, all talents and abilities are recognized. In Japan and many other Asian countries, only the professions are respected. Those who cannot achieve in medicine, engineering, academia or law are considered failures."

I never forgot the man's words and never again criticized an American education. The learning that takes place in many American homes and schools is the foundation of our great society and has given many of us opportunities that can only be imagined by others.

I read with interest the artlicle by Ms. Kuhn in the March 8 edition of Education Week.

I lived and worked in Southeast Asia for more than nineteen years as an educator, both as a principal and as a staff development consultant. My role as a principal was for a k-8 primary/middle international ( American) school in Singapore. I am currently a principal in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

The best way to describe the difference between the American parent's attitude toward education and the Asian parent was described in a Scientific American article perhaps twenty years ago. Loosely summarized, " The Asian parent if they are informed that their children are gifted and talented, the parents expect their children to work harder. However, if the American parent is informed that their children are gifted and talented, they expect the school to challenge the student, but "work harder" is frequently not an element that is considered."

It would be very difficult for the American parents to adopt the Asian attitude, because it goes contrary in various ways to American parent thinking. American parents seek to provide everything for their children and expose them to many activities, hoping they will learn through those activities. However the work ethic that thrives in Asia, is rarely embraced in America as it was years ago. ( Doug Heath did research on this and found that those children raised in rural areas were more likely to have a strong work ethic in today's society.)

Asian parents do not stop schooling when the child goes home from school each day, as a matter of fact , it is not unusual for the parents to hire a tutor and if not, expect them to do more work and give them extra homework . In Singapore students attend school on Saturday!

In response to your question, "should it be viewed as a model for American educators and parents to replicate? I believe that the "bar for student performance academically" has been raised by schools due to NCLB etc, however, the culture of America and the parents are not on the same page. It is ironic that schools are held accountable for student attendance, yet is a parental responsibility.

I disagree with the statement, " Children need to discover for themselves the best reasons to become educated." I believe that the parents' role is essential in helping educate their children to the " why it is necessary to be educated." It is the schools responsibilty to challenge the children academically and for teachers to provide motivating and exciting lessons that capture their interest. Students should be expected to "work hard" ( effort) to do their very best to achieve.

I read with interest the article by Ms. Kuhn in the March 8 edition of Education Week.

I lived and worked in Southeast Asia for more than nineteen years as an educator, both as a principal and as a staff development consultant. My role as a principal was for a k-8 primary/middle international ( American) school in Singapore. I am currently a principal in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.

The best way to describe the difference between the American parent's attitude toward education and the Asian parent was described in a Scientific American article perhaps twenty years ago. Loosely summarized, " The Asian parent if they are informed that their children are gifted and talented, the parents expect their children to work harder. However, if the American parent is informed that their children are gifted and talented, they expect the school to challenge the student, but "work harder" is frequently not an element that is considered."

It would be very difficult for the American parents to adopt the Asian attitude, because it goes contrary in various ways to American parent thinking. American parents seek to provide everything for their children and expose them to many activities, hoping they will learn through those activities. However the work ethic that thrives in Asia, is rarely embraced in America as it was years ago. ( Doug Heath did research on this and found that those children raised in rural areas were more likely to have a strong work ethic in today's society.)

Asian parents do not stop schooling when the child goes home from school each day, as a matter of fact , it is not unusual for the parents to hire a tutor and if not, expect them to do more work and give them extra homework . In Singapore students attend school on Saturday!

In response to your question, "should it be viewed as a model for American educators and parents to replicate? I believe that the "bar for student performance academically" has been raised by schools due to NCLB etc, however, the culture of America and the parents are not on the same page. It is ironic that schools are held accountable for student attendance, yet is a parental responsibility.

I disagree with the statement, " Children need to discover for themselves the best reasons to become educated." I believe that the parents' role is essential in helping educate their children to the " why it is necessary to be educated." It is the schools responsibilty to challenge the children academically and for teachers to provide motivating and exciting lessons that capture their interest. Students should be expected to "work hard" ( effort) to do their very best to achieve.

As an educator from Brazil living in America for 7 years, I cannot help but disagree with the article. Students should not discover by themselves the reason to study, that is the parents' responsibility. However, children usually are not mature enough until the late teens to see the importance of education. Those whose parents valued education continue in the same route. However, those whose parents allowed them to quit school, discover it may be too late to go back and finish high school (many are married or have children)As a nation, American parents have a lot to learn from Asian parenting principals, specially their work ethics. For example, if American parents stop blamming schools for the high drop out rates and took a look at their parents' skills, I am quite sure the drop out rates would decrease. According to the author, Asian students have poor social skills; however, many of our students only have good social skills so they can mascarade their illiteracy. It is time for America to focus on strict education where teachers and parents support each other and students are given less freedom.

As an educator from Brazil living in America for 7 years, I cannot help but disagree with the article. Students should not discover by themselves the reason to study, that is the parents' responsibility. However, children usually are not mature enough until the late teens to see the importance of education. Those whose parents valued education continue in the same route. However, those whose parents allowed them to quit school, discover it may be too late to go back and finish high school (many are married or have children)As a nation, American parents have a lot to learn from Asian parenting principals, specially their work ethics. For example, if American parents stop blamming schools for the high drop out rates and took a look at their parents' skills, I am quite sure the drop out rates would decrease. According to the author, Asian students have poor social skills; however, many of our students only have good social skills so they can mascarade their illiteracy. It is time for America to focus on strict education where teachers and parents support each other and students are given less freedom.

In the commentary, “Does the Asian Success Formula Have a Downside,” Kuhn uses a 63 word, convoluted question that asks about American issues, namely gun control and the death penalty, which is a racially biased question. I even had to read the question several times because of its length and complexity. Yet when her Asian students give her a blank stare, she uses this to promote her progressive ideology that students need to “live their own lives, live and let live, and discover what is best for them to learn.” If this same lengthy question were asked of a Somalian or Bosnian refugee, she would get the same “statistically significant and striking result.”

Her generalized use of the term, “Asian,” is significantly and strikingly incorrect.
The people in Asia represent 57 percent of the world’s population and they come from such countries as Afghanistan, East Timor, Laos, Pakistan, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka, not to mention the more commonly known countries of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and India. That’s over half the people in the world, yet Kuhn stereotypes them all under one monolithic category and dares to say that her research produced “statistically significant results.”

The people in India speak 200 languages with over 1600 dialects and is one of the most diverse countries in the world. China, alone, has a population of 1.3 billion, four times the population of the United States and its ethnic diversity encompasses 55 ethnic groups speaking hundreds of dialects. The students from Asia come from such diverse places as the Hmong from Thailand, Samoa, Myanmar, Nepal, and Indonesia. Many of them come with limited English or without parents. Most of them work hard, respect their teachers, and value their educational experience.

Kuhn is free to promote her progressive ideology that a person should sit around and think and not work hard to learn anything academic, but it would behoove her to not generalize and stereotype a group of people and then demonize them to sell her ideology.

Harry K. Wong, Ed.D.

I agree with most of the comments that have already been said. I had to post though, since I saw no student postings. I qualify as an American Asian... in that I have full citizenship at least! It seems (to me) that most "American" students have want to excel in their studies but are lazy. A lot of my friend's parents were confused when their child did not have a 4.0 when they were in all AP/gifted and talented classes, but they did not do anything to help their own child. Rather, they gave their child the benefit of the doubt and called the teacher. Saying that it was all the teacher's fault and their student could not be in the wrong. This happened while I was at a friend's house, and I could not help but be most surprised. My parents are caucausion, but have just as high expectations for me as do the "Asian" parents. They would hire a tutor for me if my grade 'slipped' from a 100% to a 96%. Everything was usually my fault, but I never questioned their love for me. They were HIGHLY involved in everything that I did (and still are even as a junior in college!), both socially and academically. They were good friends with my friends and teachers. I love the fact of how involved they are with my life. It has made me work harder, appreciate my parents more, my peers, authorities, and everyone that has helped me in some way in my life. I am studying to be a music teacher, and hope that my parents, regardless of what race they are, are just as involved in my student's lives as mine were. And please, NO MORE STEREOTYPING!

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