Importing brainy kids

Our smartest students come from immigrant families, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The children of immigrants are becoming the top math and science students in the United States, dominating academic competitions and representing the strongest hope the nation has of keeping an edge in high-tech and biomedical fields, according to a study released Monday.

According to the National Foundation for American Policy, which backs employment-related visas, 60 percent of the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search, 65 percent of the U.S. Math Olympiad’s top scorers and 46 percent of U.S. Physics Team members are the children of immigrants. “Seven of the top 10 award winners at the 2004 Intel Science Talent Search were immigrants or their children. In 2003, three of the top four awardees were foreign-born.”

These young brains are not the children of the huddled masses. Typically, their parents are engineers and scientists.

Every year, the San Jose Mercury News runs photos and a profile of the valedictorians of local high schools. I’d guess the majority come from immigrant families, mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Iranian and Russian. It’s rare to see a Spanish name. Here’s the most recent “best and brightest” page. (It takes all summer to do all the schools, many of which have multiple valedictorians.) The names are: Hsu, Bhople, May, Lin, Lai, Tran, Allen and Doan. Maybe not representative. Let’s try another one: Slagle, Lee, Zhang, Gottipatti, Harper, Avila, Claus, Dao, Jebens, Koval, Johnson, Kapulkin, Sato, Jhatakia, Decena, Ashe, Tran, Nguyen, Pham, Dick. Two of the non-Asians appear to be from Russian immigrant families. One girl is Japanese-American, and therefore probably not from an immigrant family.

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  1. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Where grads are sorted by department, the softer the science the whiter the grad.

  2. “Whiter”? The piece is distinguishing between immigrants and Americans, not between the races (note references to Russians).

  3. Richard Brandshaft says:

    “These young brains are not the children of the huddled masses. Typically, their parents are engineers and scientists.”

    Does anyone know what would happen if you considered the children of American born engineers and scientists as a separate group? That was not a rhetorical question. Ms. Jacobs refers to Silicon Valley valedictorians. There are American born engineers and scientists in Silicon Valley.

  4. Walter, I think you mean the more likely the grad is American-born. By the second generation Asians seem as soft as their white American counterparts.

  5. To be technical, 99 percent of Americans are immigrants. Only difference being length of time on the American continent. So are these kids the offspring of recent immigrants? Or is this article illuminating diffences in attitudes towards education, work, and life between various cultures?

  6. Actually, Gwen, you are generalizing, not being technical. To be technical, an immigrant is an alien that has immigrated to another country. My mother immigrated here with her parents in 1957. However, I am not an immigrant. I was born here. The piece, to be technical, is talking about children of immigrants, either first generation Americans (like myself) or perhaps children who immigrated along with their parents. It is not talking about second, third, or twentieth generation Americans.

  7. superdestroyer says:

    If you look at UT-Austin’s recently published data on high school standing and major, one of the hidden gems was that the college of social sciences had almost no asian-american majors whereas almost no blacks or hispanics were enrolled in the hard sciences.

  8. I think the piece might have been trying to examine a cultural divide as well. Immigrants, new to this country, being the type of ambitious people that actually leave (or perhaps flee) the only home they’ve ever known to come to America… are they better parents when it comes to making sure their children take education very seriously? Do they come from places that adhere to the type of strict education that an overly-PC America is shifting away from (i.e. less focus on math because there are calculators, less focus on spelling and grammer because there is spell-check, and less focus on competition because some kids get their feelings hurt)? I think that might be the underlying message.

  9. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I know the difference between skin color and immigration status, and did when I wrote that observation.

  10. I am not stupid either, Walter, I know what you meant. I was critiquing you for making it about race.

  11. There’s clearly a strong correlation between ethnicity and school performance.

  12. Ok, but the question is whether that is a genetic correlation or a cultural one. Russians, I note again, are not a race. So let’s examine statistics on successful races in disciplines such as the humanities and social sciences. Oh wait, the article doesn’t bother with that.

  13. Children of smart parents tend to be smart. That’s genetic.

    Children raised in cultures that value education and produce strong families tend to do well in school. It doesn’t take high intelligence; average brains and good work habits are enough.

    Students who aren’t fluent in English when they start school are more likely to concentrate on math and science, where they can excel quickly, rather than trying to be top English and history students.

    There’s also pressure from foreign-born parents to study something practical, like engineering or medicine. I met a girl born in Taiwan who majored in electrical engineering to please her parents, then got a master’s in Renaissance literature to please herself. It only took her four years to complete both at Stanford. She was exploring a career in journalism. I don’t know what became of her but I’m quite sure she’s a success.

  14. Alastair says:

    Regarding ethnicity and academic performance, the Gene Expression blog is probably the blog to check out ;

    I think that in most cases here the prime motivator is the attitude of the parents generally. It’s the classic immigrant “ladder to be climbed”, high expectation and optimism of opportunity. In other words, the classic American story.

    Ofcourse, one must also ask oneself the question about what’s wrong elsewhere? Perhaps the expectation only rises to the mediocre …. or television gets in the way. Something seems wrong anyway. I hope the next generation performs as well. Good luck to all.

  15. lindenen says:

    I think the bigger question is why American students are so mediocre.

    Here are some negative article on immigration ramifications.

  16. American students are so mediocre due the culture which prevades schools these days. Cliques, being popular, always being in trouble, being the class cut-up (or ****-up), etc.

    I think that american students simply look at school (on average) as something that they are made to do (i.e. – we have mandatory attendance, not mandatory education in the United States).

    We also have a outdated school model (content, length of school day/year) which dates back to the 1930’s when the main industry in the US was agriculure and manufacturing/labor, opposed to today in 2004.

    A good look at this issue comes from recent comments made by Bill Cosby about the condition of black youth, and the need to stop blaming ‘the man’ for all the problems of black society. He said these things sitting right next to Jesse Jackson, who had NO choice but to agree with Bill Cosby, due to the fact that Mr. Cosby was telling the honest facts about the problems of black youth, and blacks in general.

    I’d never thought I’d hear a prominent black say such comments to fellow blacks, but I guess I can still be surprised from time to time.

  17. When my daughter Jessie was deciding which physics grad schools to apply to we went to lunch one day with a biochemist friend of mine at UVa. After lunch he told me that she’d have no trouble getting into most of the top schools. Since at that point he didn’t know her grades, GRE scores, etc., I asked if his confidence was based on physics depts. giving implicit or explicit preferences to girls, since there are fewer of them in physics. “No,” he said. “It’s because she’s American. Most of the physics grad students these days are Chinese.” (She did get into a bunch of top schools, and we like to think it’s not because she’s American. Or at least not only because of that.)

  18. But–I do alumni interviewing for my Ivy League alma mater. As I was an English major, I have a fondness for those who want to study literature and seek a life-time of underemployment. Yes, immigrant kids (usually from the Far East and sometimes, Russia) are math and science smart but writing an interesting essay about a book is beyond them. Most of them parrot back their teacher’s not-too-original opinions. Perhaps they have real thoughts on the subject and their English was too limited to express themselves, but I suspect that they were very uncomfortable with any sort of introspection or personal approach to say, King Lear.

  19. Tim from Texas says:

    Most American youth are just spoiled rotten and are looking at an adolescent life that extends to the age of 27 and in many cases 30 and beyond.

    In most cases, immigrants come from countries where, as a way of life, weaning must happen way before that, so they all work to be prepared for it. They still know that allowing their youth to meander into adulthood and take forever to get there and maybe never get there is not good and is irresponsible. They don’t believe in adult support. It’s just about as simple as that.

    Of course, our culture and way of life bashes many second generations into softness and spoiling their children, but not all, especially the orientals. It seems, and I would argue that it is one of the reasons they prefer to stay separated from us as much as possible.

  20. Tim–you’re kidding right? There’s no one as spoiled as a Chinese eldest son. He can stay at home well into his 50s, if he has a mind to.

  21. “Most of them parrot back their teacher’s not-too-original opinions. Perhaps they have real thoughts on the subject and their English was too limited to express themselves, but I suspect that they were very uncomfortable with any sort of introspection or personal approach to say, King Lear. ”

    Kate, aren’t we over-generalizing a bit here? I am an Indian immigrant to the US and trust me, 90% of the Indians who immigrate have an excellent command over English and are perfectly capable of expressing themselves. We have read Shakespeare in schools back home as well as contemporary Indian fiction in English.

    We are as disparate in our thought processes as any Americans and are not afraid of speaking up in class.

  22. Steve LaBonne says:

    Kate, somehow I suspect that writing an interesting, or indeed any, essay about any aspect of science is beyond you. If so, your snootiness hardly becomes you.

  23. “parroting back” what parents, teachers, and the talking heads on the national news say to us is hardly a trait reserved to immigrants – Americans are equally, if not egregiously more, guilty of being spoon-fed their “opinions” and never formulating a single orginal thought. Apathy is the least discriminating mindset of them all… it knows no citizenship, race, or religion.

  24. Oh, and Kate, for someone of Ivy League breeding, I am amazed that you believe that there is no intellectualism or introspection to be had in the sciences. Try reading “The Mind of God” by Rich Davies or any one of Isaac Asimov’s many, many works (who was required reading in my english classes, right along side Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Shakespeare). Try looking beyond academia for two seconds, and you will find that intellectualism is not reserved to English students and down-on-their-luck writers.

  25. I think y’all are reading Kate’s comment wrong.

  26. Steve LaBonne says:

    I don’t think so. I’m sick and tired of scientifically ignorant literary types dismissing “science smarts” as some kind of trained-seal act rather than real intellectual distinction.

  27. Kate, my experience is that many students – not just immigrants – are reluctant or unwilling to take thoughtful risks in their writing. When I worked on my graduate thesis in (yes) humanities, my professor privately lamented the lack of original thought from her students, too. So it’s a problem all around.

    I suspect the habit of parroting comes from a) not having been taught critical thinking skills and b) laziness.

  28. In American schools (generally), the stand-out athlete is nearly worshipped in the community by peers and adults alike (i.e. gets the girls), while the merit scholar is given swirlies and wedgies in the bathroom.

    In all of these countries whose students and immigrants are kicking our butts, the stand-out student is nearly worshipped in the community by peers and adults alike (i.e. gets the girls), not the athlete.

    This has changed somewhat over the past 20 years as America exports many aspects of its culture around the world (e.g. Japanese love their baseball), but it is still a general truth; geeks and brainiacs get the girls and praise.

    The state of our public education and the mediocrity of our students reflects accordingly, along with the attending societal by-products such as the exalted professional athlete, their ever unsatisfactory multi-million dollar salaries, and the routine display by sports fans in every sort of self-indulgent and antisocial behavior.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think sports have many redeeming qualities. I played sports in high school, though I was not a stand-out, I was a starter. I have a unique perspective in that both ‘worlds’ were available to me, but I chose only one because of the pressures from typical American culture and societal values.

    By 8th grade, I was a full two years ahead of my peers in every category except for social skills, particularly strong in sciences, but it was the social standing that I came to crave (or resent the lack of it). I experienced a growth spurt between 6th and 8th grade, which gave me physical parity with many football players and wrestlers my age. So I decided to try sports because being a geek wasn’t going to elevate my social standing. And it turns out, I wasn’t bad. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad, either.

    The attention poured in, from peers who previously knocked the books out of my arms, from girls who previously were unapproachable, and also from many people I didn’t know existed back when only the parents of contestants came to watch spelling bees and chess matches, not the entire community donned in school colors.

    So academics went out the window, replaced by girls, sports, and partying. At the end of high school, my GPA barely exceeded the minimum required for graduation. After leaving the dysfunctional culture and expectations of high school, I realized the social standing for which I had forsaken academics became increasingly irrelevant unless I could play college ball. The real world wanted much more than I had strived for. I couldn’t get into a single four year college, so I attended a community college.

    As a backdrop to this, I lived in a blue collar union community where the pervasive attitude was that one didn’t need an education; the auto factories paid high school drop-outs $15.00/hour with health and pension benefits that would make a federal employee envious (double-time on Sundays and holidays). That was a good gig in 1985, which for 50 years afforded many millions a standard of living vastly disproportionate to their skill and education level…until companies got fed up and fled communities where unions intransigently fought even the most reasonable and necessary efforts to modernize factories, reduce costs, raise quality and productivity.

    This doesn’t happen in Japan or India. One’s future earning potential and standard of living is directly and observably tied to one’s skill and education level, with only rare exceptions. In developing countries, the dichotomy is between poverty and affluence, there are not three levels of middle class as there is in the US (unskilled, skilled, and professional). In the US, the unskilled can enjoy income and standard of living parity with skilled and professional middle class (e.g. factory workers or unionized industry). Its not an easy gig to get, but it can be got. This contributes to a pervasive illusion that education isn’t nearly as crucial as some insist. And it isn’t purely an illusion, precisely because so many unskilled or low-skilled workers are able to obtain reasonable parity with skilled and professional middle class folks.

    A disconnect between supply and demand of labor is fostered, and replaced with the notion that one needn’t better themselves or their education to secure a better income or opportunities by acquiring more valuable skills or knowledge, all that need be done is muster the power to force employers to pay more for labor than its worth on the open market, whether through legislation or unions. Unions promote and protect mediocrity for this reason; nobody need better themselves, you just flex some political muscle and force others to pay the amount that you think your labor is worth, not what it may actually be worth to the one footing the bill.

    e.g. My father was functionally illiterate with an 8th grade education and no special skills. He earned a very good income with generous benefits for 37 years at General Motors. In those 37 years, he never spend a dollar of that income to further his education…because he didn’t need to. He was making more than some middle-class professionals and the union protected him (and millions just like him) from having to further their education or expand their skill set to keep pace with changing labor needs.

    Japan’s culture is so nationalist, its unions may as well be from Mars compared to American unions. Indeed, it was and still is the rule among union members in my community to disparage the Japanese work ethic and the cooperative spirit among Japanese unions to help the company remain competitive on the global market, even by sacrificing jobs as needed to adopt new technology, eliminate duplication of labor, and reduce costs that cannot be justified to benefit the company as a whole.

  29. Whoops! I didn’t realize the last post in this discussion (before mine) was dated 2004.

    Note to self: check the dates lol!


  1. Hube's Cube says:


    Joanne Jacobs notes that “‘Our smartest students come from immigrant families,’ reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer.” The children of immigrants are becoming the top math and science students in the United States, dominating academic competitions and re…