Are American students and their parents willing to work as hard as East Asians?

Can we learn anything from East Asian cultures where teachers are revered and parents highly involved in their child’s learning? (Adam Dean/The New York Times)

With schools starting back this week, parents fret about whether their child’s teacher will be engaging, how much homework to expect, and if their child will be able to balance classes with soccer or band.

In East Asian countries, parents voice a singular worry: Will their child learn? Academics eclipse all other activities, and the children’s success depends not only on their own dogged effort, but that of the parents as well.

The difference may explain the performance gap between East Asian countries and the United States. For example, Georgia released exam results earlier this month showing less than half of students, typically around 40 percent on each grade level, scored proficient or better in math and English/language arts.

According to a research scholar on East Asian education, this lagging performance, even when comparing middle-class students, will not change unless we upend two beliefs: Teachers are responsible for student achievement, and parents play a supportive rather than the primary role.

“We have been trying to fix all the things about education that adults control. Let’s step back and look at the children. They bring something to the table, too,” said Cornelius N. Grove, author of the new book, “The Drive to Learn: What the East Asian Experience Tells Us about Raising Students Who Excel.”

And what children bring — or don’t bring, in the case of U.S. students, he says — is a receptiveness to learning and a moral and cultural imperative to excel.

In his earlier book, “The Aptitude Myth,” Grove challenged the assumption that school performance is determined by innate aptitude. Studies show that, in fact, East Asian students in the U.S. don’t enter kindergarten with a cognitive edge. Yet they end up surpassing classmates because they believe achievement derives from effort, not genes. Students who fail an algebra test here often say, “I’m just not good at math.” East Asian students use failure to figure out what they don’t know and redirect their study plan.

Then, there are Asian parents, made infamous by Yale professor Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” in which she chronicled forcing her two daughters to practice their instruments for six hours and threatening to dismantle and give away one’s doll house if she didn’t nail “The Little White Donkey.”

Chua’s Draconian standards, which prompted some critics to blast her methods as “abuse,” seem to have paid off, said Grove. Chua’s youngest child attends Harvard, while the older graduated from Harvard and is a U.S. Army officer working toward a law degree at Yale. Both young women contend they always knew they were loved and plan to raise their own kids with similar high expectations.

Grove said Asian parents show so much passion and involvement because they see themselves as their children’s primary educators, explaining, “In Asia, parents retain this responsibility. They see the teacher as supporting their efforts. They very much respect anyone with knowledge, so teachers get a great deal of respect.”

And that deep cultural respect permeates classrooms where East Asian students arrive with upturned faces and pencils in hand to take notes and listen to their teachers, seldom asking questions, a trait often derided as passive and, thus, as ineffectual learning. “Here, we assume that if students are talking and moving around, they are mentally engaged and learning, but that doesn’t necessarily follow,” said Grove. “East Asian students believe that a class session is their opportunity to get expert knowledge, so they don’t interrupt the teacher.” Once class is over, students often continue researching the topics on their own, frequently meeting informally with classmates for joint inquiry. It’s not uncommon for them to approach the teacher outside of class time to discuss what their further studies revealed.

It is a uniquely American idea that schools must provide sports, clubs, theaters, and pep rallies alongside academics to make school palatable to children, said Grove. Extracurricular activities are far less common in East Asia. There, children are much more receptive to classroom learning because it’s how they become their best selves and useful family and community members.

At the end of an hourlong phone discussion, I asked Grove whether American parents, many of whom want their kids to have fun at school and expect teachers to understand when students miss class or assignments due to baseball tournaments or family vacations, would ever embrace a model that increases their responsibilities?

Yes, he said, if parents have courage. “You must get out of the habit of bolstering your children’s self-esteem when they don’t do well. That doesn’t happen in East Asia,” he said. And parents have to rethink the “well-rounded child” ideal, which is widespread here but has left American children far behind their East Asian peers academically.

Grove rejects the criticism that the East Asian education model will lead to less creativity and innovation. “We are not short of entrepreneurs in this country,” he said. “We have masses of young people who aren’t able to do simple math, who have trouble reading a sentence. That is our bigger problem and the one I am trying to help solve.”

Reader Comments 0

36 comments
palepadre
palepadre

Immigrants do whatever it takes to get into our country. "Land Of Opportunity," says it all. Size of our Continent, relatively low person per square mile,multi-occupation possibilities. We have the jobs of every country in the world, somewhere in the United States. What is the ethnic distribution of other countries? 1 billion Chinese,1 Billion in India. India which still has the "Caste" system. You're born at some level, that confines you to a certain level in their society. African continent, Asian Continent, and the people who occupy it, the dream is coming here. That is what drives families to support their children's education.The struggle of past generations is taught to their children, and ethnic pride drives the student's achievement.

liberal4life
liberal4life

These comparisons are always oversimplified.

BKendall
BKendall

Thanks for the links.

Asian-Americans as a total group has led the NAEP Academic Gap for almost all of the last 16/17-years. Probably would have led in some disciplines and grade levels, most of the 1990's if Fed Ed had separated them from Pacific Islanders sooner.

Children need both Structure and Free Time.





MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Over the years, I have been struck with the number of parents focused on how much fun their kids have to the point of saying that school should not be an impediment to that.

I also have been surprised at parents who pull their kids out of school regularly for vacations under the rationale that their kids either need the break or the vacation offers educational value greater than the missed classes at school. 

My concern is that all kids will hear is that school is not as important as visiting Santa Fe or Montreal. 

I have good friends who have done this and say their kids did not lose a step from missing a week, but I stil wonder about the underlying message communicated.

CW46556
CW46556

Several years ago a Scientific American article reported on the academic success of Asian-Americans in the US compared to whites and other minorities controlling for SES.  The article described the priority placed on education by Asian-American parents.  As an example, after dinner the parents would clean up while the children would gather around the dining table with their homework.  A key observation was that the older children would help their younger siblings to understand concepts and complete the homework, so academic achievement was a family priority.  The conclusion was that Asian-Americans, parents and children were committed to academic performance, less distracted by extracurricular activities and homework was not viewed as a distraction, but central to achievement.

Another comment
Another comment

Maureen you are not comparing apples to apples. Only the top to all. That is not a fair comparison. Most of India is illiterate, most of China remains illiterate.

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

@Another comment But THOSE IN SCHOOL in China accel since their parents are involved and they are not "distracted. The kids "job" is to learn and they have fun doing so.

PappyHappy
PappyHappy

It is up to parents, teachers, and then the kids.  If we want to maintain a high standard of living in the US society, then we are going to have to work hard and EARN IT.  Many in the Far East (Korea as an example) has a highly disciplined public school system.  They spend more hours a day in school; they spend significantly more days of the year in school; they are spending much more time on science, technical, engineering and math courses than our students -- PLUS, languages.  When one looks at that nation's natural resources compared to those of the US, one would have to say that what they have pulled off the past 50 years is nothing short of a miracle.  BUT, THEY WORK, and do not rely on the government as we do in the US.


The problem for us is not only the Far East.


Read Dr. Tony Wagner's book: "The Global Achievement Gap".  We need to get out collective acts together, or quickly learn Chinese or Korean, for that is who we are going to find ourselves working for, and our erstwhile Congress will not be able to sit in DC and say "NO"!

Falcaints
Falcaints

I once had a Korean exchange student in my US History class and she was easily my best student. i once asked the other students if it bothered them that she knew more about their country's history than they did, they all said no. It comes down to desire.

FlaTony
FlaTony

The article referenced the students' self-confidence in math. One of the TIMSS (I think) studies used a survey in conjunction with the math test. In Asian countries that participated, the students typically did well on the exam but rated themselves poor math students. In America, the students did not do as well on the math exam, but rated themselves highly as mathematicians. There was another article i read this week (http://www.illumeably.com/2017/07/27/success-vs-failure/) that expressed how strong an impact work ethic (grit was their word) was for students.


Hard work pays off. There is no simple way to put that. When it comes to schooling and learning, all the performance measures we currently use to rate teachers are focused on the wrong thing - teacher input/output. Student input/output is much more crucial their future success.

gactzn2
gactzn2

The key word today is "LIKE".  Students have to "LIKE" the teacher in order for the teacher to be effective at doing their job.  Too much propaganda has sent the message to non-educators that "fun" is what school should be in order to induce engagement from students, and PROVE that learning is taking place.  At the end of the day, it all boils down to hard work and who is willing to work for it. We have, educationally speaking, lobotomized our students, and even they don't know what it really takes to excel at the highest levels because we have not asked them to put any skin in the game.  Students will have to rise higher and move away from social media- the ultimate distraction.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

The Asian children I have been around have been extremely focused on educational achievement, and things related directly to it--music lessons, for example.  Their parents seem willing to make any sacrifice of their own personal enjoyment to nurture their progeny, whether it be money spent on special classes, or tutoring.


I am afraid your general, run-of-the-mill middle class "American" parents are not willing to do so.  They want their children to be involved (and good at) sports as well, and they don't want to have to do without what they have come to think of as their own "rewards."  I think, very generally speaking, most "American" parents are too focused on their own needs and don't want to expend the energy and money to see that their children super-excel academically.  So we mollify ourselves with the whole "well-rounded" pacifier.


During the five years we were in Athens, I saw Asian and newly-immigrant children outpacing most of our well-off "American" kids as valedictorians, science or geography fair winners, and winners of spelling bees, to the point it was almost embarrassing that my own children were only honor graduates, or first chair musicians.


We can make all the excuses we want, but I think many parents need to rethink their priorities and goals, to focus on their children's successes, or lack of.

Stacey Freeman Gyorgyi
Stacey Freeman Gyorgyi

Rather than comparing, how about focusing on "Georgia released exam results earlier this month showing less than half of students, typically around 40 percent on each grade level, scored proficient or better in math and English/language arts." You all are okay with this? FORTY PERCENT. That means something is HORRIBLY wrong with our standards and the Milestones test, which has a cut score of 60... yes SIXTY.... and, let me state this again, only 40 percent are scoring proficient or better. Common Core standards are absolute garbage and we wasted $100 million+ on a test (Milestones) that the teachers never see, so they have no idea what they are teaching to all year long. Give the teachers back their classrooms and our kids... let them do what they do best, which is TEACH, not trying to teach to an invalid and unreliable test, and get rid of Common Core in our state. (Georgia Standards of Excellence was just a rebrand, by the way) Join Opt Out Georgia on FB to learn more.

LJTCD
LJTCD

The key to a child's success in education is the parent. Whether it be a one parent or two parent home. Parents have to value education and make it a priority. I'm tired of the excuses about one parent homes. I have witnessed children from one parent homes do just fine. We need to stop the Medicaid train which pays for birthing children to people who can't afford them. That will stop the millions of children who are born into a life of poverty with mothers who take no responsibility for their child's education.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

So, Maureen posts a blog titled "Are American students and their parents willing to work as hard as East Asians?" and nobody bats an eye.  Imagine the cry from the politically correct pathogens if she had posted "Are Black students and their parents willing to work as hard as Whites?"

Cue up the "Dat's Racisss" apologists in 3...2....1....


idwd
idwd

There is perhaps a balance (and perhaps some country has achieved it). I have mentored many East Asian graduate students who score extremely well on quantitative tests and master quantitative analytical material. However, though my sample is not very large, I have noticed that most of these students are not as strong in taking initiative on advanced tasks (identifying key problems and research questions). Once the problem is clearly identified and teh the question posed, they have been very good. But my domestic students have been better at identifying new, critical questions. They are better at being the "first word" on a topic rather than the "last word." In my opinion, the former is the most important of the two. I do wonder whether the intense schedules they faced in school (mostly South Korea) and the pressure to master skills is part of the issue.

Starik
Starik

East Asians do well. Don't forget the achievements of South Asians. Give Latinos a chance and they will do well. Recent immigrants from the Middle East and Africa do well. We need to find a way to, finally, bring black folks into the mainstream after all this country did to them. A return to segregation is not the solution. Reform the way school system is structured, and do away with our segregated school systems.

alt_AJC
alt_AJC

Another article on East Asian families that fails to mention the fact they almost always include TWO parents in the household.

While nearly 3 out of 4 black family households do not.

Starik
Starik

@alt_AJC What creates single-parent families? A poisonous black poverty culture attributable to slavery and the Scotch-Irish southern folks who owned slaves. Education is not highly valued in the culture. Blacks who adopt mainstream American culture are doing very well.

alt_AJC
alt_AJC

@Starik @alt_AJC 

As recently as the 1960s three out of four black children grew up in homes with fathers present. 

Why won't you understand that?

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Among teens, we rate higher.


There were 13 countries with suicide rates 1.5 times or more above the mean: these included Sri Lanka, with the highest suicide rate, followed by Lithuania, Russia and Kazakhstan. In 24 countries (areas) suicide rates were above, but less than 1.5 times, the mean: this category included Norway, Canada, Latvia, Austria, Finland, Belgium and the USA. The remaining 53 countries (areas) had below-average suicide rates (Table ​(Table11).

The mean suicide rate for males and females together in the 63 countries (areas) for which data for the year 1995 were available was 8.4/100,000, slightly higher than that (7.4/100,000) in the 90 countries (areas) described above, mainly owing to the higher suicide rate in males (Table ​(Table2).2). Among these, 13 countries (including Russia, New Zealand, the Baltic states, Kazakhstan, Norway, Canada and Slovenia) reported suicide rates of 1.5 times the mean or more. Sixteen countries (including Ukraine, Switzerland, the USA, Austria, Ireland, Belgium, Hungary and Portugal) showed suicide rates above, but less than 1.5 times, the mean. Thirty-four countries had below-average suicide rates (Table ​(Table2). More2). More than two-thirds of the countries listed in Table ​Table22 are European countries.


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1414751/

DecaturRags
DecaturRags

What was it Thomas Edison said about genius being 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

Kamau Mason
Kamau Mason

You can't compare our apples to their oranges. Their schools also predetermine social class and ability at early ages. How about the idea that the author just suggest to readers to follow a regimented schedule to support their children's studies every night. Typical philosophical educational op ed.

weetamoe
weetamoe

The author also cites the success of Asian students in US schools. That fact is clearly stated in the article above.

Astropig
Astropig

Agree completely! 


This article reads like some kind of elitists propaganda from an earlier time.


Students of history will recall how,before Pearl Harbor,the Japanese were thought of as almost sub-human, primitive illiterate jungle dwellers.Then the bombs fell.


Almost immediately,they became these super-human elite warriors that could live on dirty rice and muddy water for months at a time.The difference? our perceptions were changed by hysterical,uninformed press reports about how they were going to take over the whole world and we were almost helpless to stop them. Well, we know how that turned out.


More recently,the intelligentsia assured us that the Russians were a super efficient country of highly regimented geniuses that were pulling ahead of us in science,aeronautics and materials technology.In reality,they were lazy,drunk and hated their government a lot more than we were ever told.A visit to eastern Europe was like visiting a museum of antique american technology (and the curators were absent,asleep or passed out drunk)


I'd never discount the abilities of people as hard working as southeast Asians,but we have a lot to be proud of and build upon here.This kind of broad brush commentary just seems ignorant and biased (imho).

Starik
Starik

@Astropig A-Pig, would you agree that America is declining? Look at the current administration. Look at the alternative presented in November. We need massive change and more immigration.

Astropig
Astropig

@Starik @Astropig


America is still the place everyone is trying to sneak into.Travel the world a bit and you'll understand that.


America's best days are still ahead of it.

Astropig
Astropig

@LJTCD @Astropig @Starik


That's true-but it's true because our economic system is so much better than these socialist "workers paradises" that statists cite as their economic model. (Hello, Venezuela?)


Our system can deliver a dozen eggs for less than 75 cents and fresh meats,fruits and vegetables 12 months a year,(to the point where our own government tells us that we are too fat) AND can support legions of unproductive free riders, and STILL make the average,hard working person wealthy in a normal working life.


Do I have faith in such a system? You betcha.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

@LJTCD @Astropig @Starik Please!  Tell me where I can get that "free" stuff!  And,while you are at it, tell me how to "not pay taxes" also!

HokeSmyth
HokeSmyth

@Wascatlady @LJTCD @Astropig @Starik Start with food stamps - section 8 housing - Obama's cell phones - P'tree-Pine homeless shelter - free school lunch, free school breakfast - free summer school meals - waived sports participation fees -