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  • Joanne Jacobs

Excluding Ophelia: Here's how to justify bias against Asian achievers

Asian-American students teachers earn high grades in advanced classes because teachers hold them to high expectations, argues Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at Columbia University, in the New York Times. Since they benefit from bias, it's justified to discriminate against them in college admissions.


Teachers assume Asian-American students "are smart, hard-working, high-achieving and morally deserving," writes Lee, a co-author of The Asian American Achievement Paradox. In her research in Los Angeles, she found teachers sometimes place "low-achieving Asian American students on competitive academic tracks, including honors and Advanced Placement classes that can be gateways to competitive four-year universities." In class with high achievers, these students are motivated to work hard and improve.


A Vietnamese-American student they call Ophelia had a C average throughout elementary and junior high school, and failed the exam for AP English and science.

Ophelia’s teachers placed her, with her mother’s support, on the AP track anyway. Once there, she said that something “just clicked,” and she began to excel in her classes.
“I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” Ophelia explained. “I think the competition kind of increases your want to do better.” She graduated from high school with a grade-point average of 4.2 (exceeding a perfect 4.0) and was admitted into a highly competitive pharmacy program.

"None of the white, Black or Hispanic adults we interviewed were treated similarly," Lee writes. In particular, Hispanic students "received little encouragement from their teachers to attend college and even less information about how to get in."

I think it's true that teachers tend to think Asian students will be hard working, because they usually are. Expectations matter. (Teachers also think girls work harder.)


"Race-conscious policies provide a mechanism to address" the pro-Asian bias, "and help level the field of opportunity for a diverse student body," Lee concludes.


I can't accept the idea that colleges should discriminate against Ophelia because she worked hard in advanced classes, improved and did well on tests. Don't we think a strong work ethic, motivation and achievement should be rewarded?


Many high schools are expanding access to AP and other advanced classes, often adding prep classes and removing barriers to entry. That seems to me to be a better, fairer way to enable a wider range of students to excel.

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