Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

Smart and not-so-smart college majors

Statistic Brain’s IQ Estimates by College Major put education majors — including elementary, early childhood and special education — at the bottom. Student counseling also comes low on the list.

Physics and astronomy, philosophy and math top the list.

IQ is estimated by looking at SAT scores. So, for example, the average elementary education major has SATs of 968 and an estimated IQ of 108. The average physicist hits 1269 and 133. And I’m a genius. Which I’m not.

Emotional intelligence may be more valuable than “academic intelligence” in some fields, points out The Richest.

Physicists — and painters — score well on Pantheon‘s list of “cultural production.” Politicians are even more influential.

What should students know?

What should students know? Robert Pondiscio asks Deborah Meier on Ed Week‘s Bridging Differences blog.

In an earlier post about the “hidden curriculum,” Meier said a good school is judged by how it  “responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them.”

What about history, math and science? asks Pondiscio.

Meier’s schools — Central Park East Secondary School (Harlem) and Mission Hill (Boston) — set very clear graduation requirements, she responds.  The schools teach history, math, physical and natural science, literature and the arts in a “more interdisciplinary manner.” The schools encourage “curiosity, debate, skepticism, and a commitment to getting at the truth about the ‘essential questions’ in each discipline.”

Students work was expected to demonstrate five intellectual habits of mind:

 What’s the evidence? Is there a pattern?  Is there an alternate perspective, explanation? What if? And who cares?

. . . Students were rated on their written and oral ability to present their views and defend them.  We thought the five “habits” met both academic and “real life” standards. (We developed a separate list of work and social/moral habits—meeting deadlines, etc.)

“Our students’ record of success” satisfied many skeptics, despite the lack of a list of “specific information” to be taught, writes Meier. 

“I want our students to be prepped for the real world, and I hope colleges do, too,” Meier concludes. Students did well in college interviews — and in college — because “they were unusually well prepared to carry on a conversation with adults in a thoughtful and lively way.”

It’s harder to teach reading than math

“No excuses” charter schools that target low-income, minority students are raising math scores, reports the New York Times, but it’s harder to teach reading to disadvantaged students.

At Troy Prep Middle School, a charter school near Albany, students start fifth grade years behind in math and reading. Last year, all seventh graders scored proficient or advanced on state math exams; just over half met reading standards.

The 31 other schools in the Uncommon Schools network, which enrolls low-income students in Boston, New York City, Rochester and Newark, also have more students achieving proficiency in math than reading, said Brett Peiser, the network’s chief executive.

“Math is very close-ended,” Mr. Peiser said. Reading difficulties, he said, tend to be more complicated to resolve.

“Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?” Mr. Peiser said, rattling off a string of potential reading roadblocks. “It’s a three-dimensional problem that you have to attack. And it just takes time.”

After three years in KIPP middle schools, students scored 11 months — more than a full year — above the national average in math, but only 8 months ahead in reading, according to a Mathematica Policy Research study.

Large public urban districts also find it easier to raise math scores than reading scores.

Studies have repeatedly found that “teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School.

The children from low-income, less-educated families start school with a vocabulary and knowledge deficit compared to the children of well-educated parents, notes the Times. “By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.”

 “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

Common Core standards could make it harder for disadvantaged children to do well in math, Deborah L. Ball, dean of University of Michigan education school, told the Times.  “As math has become more about talking, arguing and writing, it’s beginning to require these kinds of cultural resources that depend on something besides school.”

Students from Mexican immigrant families can excel in math, teachers and principals at high-performing, high-minority schools told me when I was working on the BrokenPromises report. Math is a new language for all students, they said. I hope Ball’s prediction doesn’t come true.

Schooling makes kids smarter

Schooling Makes You Smarter, argues Richard E. Nisbett, a University of Michigan social psychology professor,  in the new American Educator.  Actually, lots of environmental influences make people smarter — or duller.

People’s intelligence is greatly affected by prenatal and immediate postnatal factors; by home environments; by education, inclding early childhood education; and by changes in the larger culture. How smart we and our children ae as individuals, and how smart we are as a society, is under our control to a marked degree.

As years of schooling rise — from eight years in 1910 to an average of 14 in 2010 — IQs rise too in what’s known as the “Flynn effect.”

. . . in nations that were fully modern and industrialized by the beginning of the 20th century, IQ has increased by about 3 points per decade from the end of World War II to the present.10 That amounts to a gain of 18 points, which is equivalent to moving from a 50th percentile score (IQ equal to 100) to a score at the 93rd percentile (IQ equal to 118).  . . . Nations that have only recently begun to modernize, such as Kenya, Sudan, and the Caribbean nations, have begun to show extremely high rates of gain.

In addition to more years of schooling, curriculum asks more of students and society has become more complex, making greater demands on  intelligence, Nisbett writes.

Culture matters. A study of high school graduates in 1966 found Asian Americans had slightly lower IQs than whites but scored 33 points higher on the SAT — they took more math in high school — and achieved more career success.  “The picture that results is that Asian Americans capitalize on a given level of intellectual ability much better than do European Americans,” Nisbett writes.

Children from low-income families may not match the achievement of children with educated parents, but “most children in poverty aren’t living up to their genetic potential,” he writes. In experiments, “persuading minority students that their intelligence is substantially under their own control” can raise their academic performance.

“School affects intelligence,” Nisbett concludes. “Better schools produce better effects, and . . .  the caliber of the individual teacher is of great importance.”

 

Slow learning

Jen Li, who grew up in China during the violently anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, has spent her academic career in the U.S. “trying to understand how Asians and Westerners think about learning,” writes New York Times columnist David Brooks in The Learning Virtues.

Westerners see learning as “something people do in order to understand and master the external world,” Li believes. “Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

In the Western understanding, students come to school with levels of innate intelligence and curiosity. Teachers try to further arouse that curiosity in specific subjects. There’s a lot of active learning — going on field trips, building things. There’s great emphasis on questioning authority, critical inquiry and sharing ideas in classroom discussion.

In the Chinese understanding, there’s less emphasis on innate curiosity or even on specific subject matter. Instead, the learning process itself is the crucial thing. The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

Westerners stress the “aha moment of sudden insight,” while Chinese respect “the arduous accumulation of understanding.” (It reminds me of the “slow food” movement.) Of course, Chinese wouldn’t think of teasing nerds, if they had such a concept. “Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination,” Brooks writes.

Brooks wonders if the U.S. can find “moral/academic codes” to motivate our students. Could we add a dash of Confucianism (he also likes Jewish Torah study) to our culture?

Shakespeare’s words

A professor explains why Shakespeare is great in a chapter of a novel on WitNit. It starts with a student’s question:

“Shakespeare represents the view of the classic white-male eurocentric patriarchy, one that’s hundreds of years old, in a dated vocabulary that’s hard to understand. What’s his relevance today? I mean, what could Shakespeare possibly have to say to me, a Black-Hispanic lesbian?”

The professor gets “Mzzzz Powers” to admit that it’s useful to be able to distinguish between a “chair” and a “stool.” It’s better to have a larger vocabulary than a smaller vocabulary.

Mzzz Powers, suppose you and I walked into a garden, and while I was a novice in gardening, you were an expert gardener who had a command of the technical language and knowledge of botany and gardening. Would our experience of a particular garden be any different?”

. . . “We would not be seeing the same garden at all. I would merely see pretty flowers, maybe some trees and grass. I may be able to tell the difference between a rose and a tulip, but that is all. I would see the mere surface of the garden. It’s mere appearance. But you, Mzzz Powers…You would see an entirely different garden. You would be able to penetrate its depths. You would be able to recognize not only the different flowers?the carnations and snap dragons and pansies and hyacinths and lilies?you would also recognize the relative health of each of those flowers. You would recognize any pests or diseased plants. You would be able to spot where each plant and flower was in its life cycle. By their arrangement and care, you would know their past. In some cases, whether or not they were recently planted. You would know how much the person who tends the garden knows about his or her occupation. You would also know the difference between annuals and perennials. And this knowledge would allow you to see not only the present garden, but the future of that garden.

. . .  a true and rich vocabulary opens one to higher levels of perceptual and conceptual awareness. A specific vocabulary rewards you with a greater awareness, and the possibility of a deep causal awareness. The ability to distinguish true causes and their array of effects. And, were you so inclined, you would naturally begin seeing the world in terms of the garden. You would begin constructing metaphors and similes, perhaps even analogies, connecting life to that garden through an array of subtle similarities.”

The average person has a vocabulary of 3,000 words, the professor says. The King James Bible uses 4,300 words. John Milton “was a genius who mastered and crafted meaning out of a vocabulary of almost eight thousand words, more than almost all living writers.”  Then there’s Shakespeare.

When a gardener reads Shakespeare, she says that Shakespeare must have been a gardener, because he not only displays the technical terminology of botany and gardening and herbology, he demonstrates the kind of knowledge that comes from working in or studying closely a sophisticated English garden. When a lawyer reads Shakespeare, she tells us that Shakespeare must have had a legal education because he not only displays an astonishing range and accuracy with his use of legal terms, be he also commands an understanding of the history and philosophy of law. And you can point to other professions: actor, soldier, physician, courtier, historian, politician.”

. . .  “In his plays, he explores the range and depth of human emotions and experience. He explores love, but not just the young romantic love of Romeo and Juliet. He explores love between siblings, and parent and child, and comrades in arms, young love, middle-aged love, old love. Love between the low and the low, the low and the high, the high and the high, false love, true love, jaded love, betrayed love, self-love, love of good and love of indulgence. Like turning a diamond in the light, he explores every facet of love and hate and envy and greed and lust and jealousy and innocence and sweetness and revenge, and a hundred subtle emotional and intellectual states . . .

Shakespeare uses a vocabulary of more than 22,000 words, says the professor.  “And you wonder why you find reading him challenging, and you dare to wonder if Shakespeare has anything to teach you?”

The elephant in the integrated classroom

Clashing parenting styles, cultures and expectations undermine school integration, writes Jennifer Burns Stillman in The Elephant in the Classroom in Education Next. She interviewed white, upper-middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods about their school choices.

. . . white, upper-middle-class families prefer a progressive and discursive style of interaction with their children, both at home and in school, and lower-income, nonwhite families prefer a traditional or authoritarian style of interaction with their children in these same venues.

White parents who try an urban school and then leave cite overly strict discipline and  “near-constant yelling—from principals, teachers, school aides, and nonwhite parents who come to drop off and pick up their kids,” Stillman writes.

White parents who wanted to volunteer said principals and non-white parents saw them as pushy interlopers.

One principal was angry when white parents gave each teacher a $100 book card donated by Barnes & Noble, seeing it as “bribing” teachers. Parents called various principals “not the brightest bulb in the box,” “insane,” “crazy,” “incompetent.”

White parents didn’t do enough “ego stroking,” one mother said.  When parents offered to help out, “it came across as, ‘You’re broken and you need fixing,’ rather than, ‘We’ve got extra hands, we’ve got extra energy, let’s build up what you already have.’ ”

“Creating a successful, truly diverse charter school is enormously difficult to pull off, ” writes Alexander Russo, also in Ed Next. Students come with a wide range of abilities and background knowledge. Parents have different cultures and expectations.

. . . the list of strategies applied is a long one: frequent online assessments to diagnose and direct students to the appropriate activity; open-ended assignments allowing kids of varying skill levels to engage at their own levels; coteaching in which two teachers share responsibility for a group of kids; and looping, in which teachers follow kids from one grade to the next.

In one Brooklyn Prospect classroom, the English teacher makes as many of her lessons open-ended as she can and coteaches half of her classes with a special education teacher. She also offers additional uncredited projects called “Seekers” so that kids who want to can go faster without disadvantaging kids still working on basic skills.

“You can’t just put a heterogeneous population together and think it’s going to work,” Summit cofounder Donna Tavares tells Russo.

Mike Petrilli’s book, The Diverse School Dilemma, offers three ways to create integrated schools in newly gentrified neighborhoods.

Homeschooling in the city

When dad’s a part-time professor  and editor and mom’s a laid-off journalist, there’s no money for private school and no motivation to schlep the kids from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a public school with a “gifted” class. Paul Elie writes about the joys of homeschooling in the city in The Atlantic.

Homeschooling isn’t just for “religious traditionalists and off-the-grid homesteaders,” Elie writes. For middle-class parents — with a stay-at-home mom or dad — it’s “a practical alternative to New York’s notoriously inadequate education system.”

The city’s public schools are underfunded, overcrowded, and perpetually in turnaround. District boundaries governing enrollment change from one year to the next, as do standards for admission to gifted programs and “citywide” schools, accept­ance to which is determined by children’s scores on tests whose educational relevance is questionable.

. . . Some of the parents in our (homeschooling) circle are “unschoolers,” convinced that early education should follow a child’s interests and initiatives rather than shape them. Some of us aspire to offer something like a classical education: logic and rhetoric, mythology, Latin. Most of us are put off by the public schools’ emphasis on standardized tests and their scant attention to the visual arts, music, religion, and foreign languages.

New York City offers a “gorgeous mosaic of intellectual and cultural offerings,” Elite writes.

On a normal day in our Brooklyn apartment, I teach math first thing, then go to an office space in a different neighborhood. Lenora picks up from there, teaching American and world history, language arts, geography, and penmanship, depending on the day. She and the boys then set out into the city for science at the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, or the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; history at the Queens County Farm Museum or the Wyckoff Farmhouse, in Brooklyn; or art at the Metropolitan Museum.

Homeschoolers can find free programs or affordable classes, such as one that “teaches children the history of a place—­medieval Europe, Federal-era New York—through its architecture.”  He pays $5 a week for a homeschool soccer program led by a coach who can’t find other work during regular school hours.

Culture clash in the classroom

Lisa Delpit’s Multiplication Is for White People: Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children argues that “low performance begins with American racism,” writes Mark Bauerlein in Ed Next.

Black males perform poorly because “our young men have internalized all of the negative stereotypes.” Sometimes black students are invisible, unnoticed, and disrespected, and sometimes they are “hypervisible,” their normal youth behaviors magnified into pathologies. They end up estranged from school culture (“disidentification”), mistrusting their own capacities and fulfilling belittling expectations.

. . . The classroom is a white, middle-class space often hostile to African American norms. It downplays collaboration, she notes, even though these students need it to “feel more secure and less vulnerable.” It ignores past contributions to learning and science by African Americans. It neglects spirituality, whereas “traditional African education” incorporates “education for the spirit” into everyday lessons.

The demoralization is demonstrated by a middle schooler who announces, “Black people don’t multiply; black people just add and subtract. White people multiply.”

“The clash of school culture with African American out-of-school culture” is a significant problem, Bauerlein writes, but he’s not persuaded that cultural sensitivity is sufficient to produce high performance.

Delpit lauds a math lesson based on racial profiling. A student says, “Now I realize that you could use math to defend your rights and realize the injustices around you.”

Bauerlein is skeptical:

But what about the math scores those students attain in 12th grade? What grades do they get in first-year college calculus? Delpit claims that schools impart the message that “you must give up identifiably African American norms in order to succeed,” but she never shows that embracing those norms produces higher college enrollment or workplace readiness.

The “no excuses” schools explicitly teach school culture — aim high, work hard, show respect, don’t quit– to low-income black and Hispanic students. Inner-city Catholic schools often do the same, writes Patrick McCloskey in The Street Stops Here. Students may embrace street culture when they walk out the door — they may need to — but not in school.

Here’s an Ed Week interview with Delpit.