Low-income valedictorians

Poor kids aren’t supposed to do well in school. But Vietnamese students in a low-income, low-performing San Jose school district earn test scores comparable to students in affluent districts where most parents are college-educated. Most of the Vietnamese kids are the children of refugees with limited education and English fluency. Even if the parents can’t help with homework, they make sure their children do well in school.

At the Khai Tri tutoring center in San Jose, the two-story building of classes is packed with Vietnamese students on a Wednesday evening. Parents rely on high school and college-age tutors to guide their children through an educational system they often do not understand.

“My mom is always saying don’t waste the opportunities we have here,” said Tina Huynh, a tutor at Khai Tri and a senior at Andrew Hill High School. “I went to tutoring centers when I was young and now I’m helping younger kids in the same way.”

. . . Franklin-McKinley’s students continue to do well after elementary and middle school: Every 2004 valedictorian at nearby Oak Grove, Yerba Buena and Andrew Hill high schools was Vietnamese-American.

The story is part of a series on Asian-Americans. It includes a survey of attitudes about education. I noticed that 96 percent of Asian parents think it’s very important for their children to go to college; another 3 percent said it was somewhat important. And 84 percent pay “a lot” of attention to their children’s grades, with another 11 percent at the “somewhat” level.

Here’s the obligatory story about pressure from parents to excel in school.

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  1. I’m mildly annoyed at the requisite “pressured by parents” story. It’s this knee-jerk reaction to news of Asian school success. This even after a decade of talk about cultural differences in attitudes toward school success.

    Bottom line: American parents think kids to do well in school because they are born smart. Asian parents think kids do well in school because they work hard.

    That difference is played out in behavior toward academic school work.

    The best basic research on this is Stevenson and Stigler in The Learning Gap.


  2. The good news for America’s children is that when their grandchildren are fully assimilated, they’ll be real Americans in the academic sense also.

  3. superdestroyer says:

    I have always believe that American students reluctance to pursue educations in engineering and the sciences is that fact that many of their upper level high school classes and college classes will be filled with high achieving Asian-Americans.
    You just can’t party hard in college when your classes have more students named Patel, Kim, or Nguyen than Smith.

  4. Like the moon this phenomenon has a dark side. I taught Freshman Comp at Cal Poly Pomona one quarter and had a slew of Vietnamese students in my class. I wanted a diagnostic essay, so I had them write on the topic, “What I do when I’m angry.” The responses I got were revelatory. Many of the male respondents (most of the students were male) wrote about breaking things, smashing fists through walls, driving cars at 100+ mph and the like. The discussion that followed disclosed a high level of anger among the students at having been forced by their parents to major in engineering. Their lives were not their own but their parents’. There, as in other venues I’ve taught with lots of Asians, cheating was a big problem. An acquaintance of mine that teaches AP Calculus has puzzled over how to stop rampant cheating by Asian students in his class. I know what he’s talking about at the high school level, which is where I teach now. At my high school, two years in a row Asian valedictorians have been disqualified at the last minute because teachers banded together and signed a petition attesting to the valedictorian’s having cheated his way to a high GPA. About ten years ago the LA Times ran a series of articles on Asian gangs. What struck me as a teacher was that a lot of Asian parents have no idea their kids are involved in criminal activity. As long as little Tommy Nguyen or Jimmy Chang are getting A’s, these parents think everything is cool. For six years I lived with some wonderful Taiwanese people who were students at Cal State, Fullerton. They told me that Chinese students regularly cheated in class and spoke of it among themselves in Mandarin or Taiwanese, even during class! One evening I was talking to my roommate, Ken, who seemed quite depressed. He had gotten his MBA and was heading back to Taiwan shortly. (That Chinese/Taiwanese students actually return to their country is unusual because the majority of them get a job with a Chinese employer that gets them a work visa until they can finagle a green card). I was literally shocked when Ken confided to me that he hated being Chinese, and that he wished he were American like me. He said his parents paid for his education and bought him a new car, but at a price he was loath to pay. His life belonged to his parents. He said he had no freedom to do what he really wanted to do in life and felt like a slave. Having also taught adult Asian immigrants in ESL, I can attest to the fact that the vast majority of these people live their lives through their children. Moreover, these adults regularly cheated on tests, and the class wasn’t for credit. One day I called them on it: “Is this the kind of example you want to set for your kids?” One brazen Taiwanese lady blurted out, and I’m not making this up, “I want my son to cheat if it means he can get into a good university.” I could tell many more stories about what I’ve learned about Asians, but suffice it to say that I have swum in their sea and found the waters to be dark and murky indeed.