top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Low-SES Asians are top students: Can 'excellence gap' be closed?

A middle school in a working-class, mostly Hispanic neighborhood in San Jose started teaching algebra after a wave of Vietnamese refugee families arrived, the principal told me. "We didn't know our kids could do this," he said. The school was about to add a third class. Most students in seventh-grade pre-algebra and eighth-grade algebra were Vietnamese, he said, but Mexican-American kids, Filipinos and others were in there too. Of course this was many years ago, before "equity" meant No Student Gets Ahead.


I visited the area a generation later and saw new townhouses next to a new shopping center. It was all very middle class or even upper-middle class. Who could afford those homes? People who'd taken eighth-grade algebra, I thought.


Thirteen percent of Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) eighth graders from very low socioeconomic families (mom didn't finish high school) scored "advanced" in math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), concludes Fordham's new report on "excellence gaps." That's more than any other group except for very high SES (mom completed college) whites, note Meredith Coffey and Adam Tyner. Reading is not quite as dramatic, but AAPI students again are very high achievers at all SES levels.



Coffey and Tyner analyzed data from 2003 to 2022. Asian students started as high achievers and improved significantly -- especially those from less advantaged families.


This is why elite colleges can't get the "diversity" they want by giving an admissions advantage to high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds: Too many Asians.


Fordham has been pushing for greater access to advanced learning opportunities at high-poverty, high-minority schools, "universal screening" for gifted programs, stronger data reporting and "culturally relevant programs and curricula. But more may be needed, write Coffey and Tyner. They suggest stronger efforts to "expand and invest in teacher career pathways that educators of color are most likely to pursue, including Grow Your Own teacher-prep programs and alternative teacher career pathways."

In addition, they write, "leaders should invest in better understanding the remarkable success of even the lowest-SES AAPI students in reaching the highest levels of achievement." What are these students doing than other students could do?


My guess is that Asian kids excel because they're more likely than others to come from stable two-parent families imbued with Confucian culture: Mom and Dad expect good grades and value hard work. There's also an immigrant effect: They are the children of parents or grandparents with the drive and brains to make it to America, the land of opportunity. That culture is hard to duplicate.

1,089 views12 comments
bottom of page