Why are Asians so good at school?

March 19, 2019 (1930 words) :: On the material factors behind the overrepresentation of Asian-Americans at prestigious high schools in NYC.
Tags: meritocracy, inequality, immigration

This post is day 78 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

I came across this NYT article about the racial breakdown of acceptances to prestigious high schools in New York City: Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.

The headline tells a shocking story in itself, but buried in the article you’ll find even more outlandish statistics. In NYC’s public school system, the racial breakdown is as follows: roughly 70% black and Hispanic, 15% are Asian, and 15% are white. But at Stuyvesant High School, 66% of the incoming class is Asian; 22% is white; and the remaining ~12% is black/Hispanic (I don’t think the article tracks any other racial categories). Even more stunning: 74% of students currently at Stuyvesant are Asian. (Which is weird given that admitted applicants have never surpassed 72% since 2016 - maybe non-Asians are more likely to go elsewhere, or to drop out?)

The purpose of these schools is pretty clear: they’re meant to be magnets for “academically gifted” students. In other words, you’ll get into a school like Stuyvesant if you’re good at navigating the educational system, demonstrated through performance on a standardised test. (You have to score among the top 4% of applicants to get in, an admissions rate that is even lower than that of elite colleges like Stanford/Harvard/MIT.)

Why would you want to get in, though? I’m sure part of the motivation is intrinsic, at least for the student - wanting to learn, wanting to be challenged, wanting to be around other people who want the same things you do. But there are more and more extrinsic pressures, too, some of which is probably mediated through the student’s parents: you go to a school like Stuyvesant to increase your chances of getting into a good college. Ideally, one of the best colleges.

In the wake of the elite college admissions scandal, I think I can safely opine that getting into a good college matters, at least to the applicants and their families. It matters because 1) you want an educational experience that helps you grow (minor reason); 2) you’ll make useful connections; and 3) it’s a signifier (the biggest reason). Saying you got into Stanford or Harvard or MIT gives you a certain cachet that’ll open lots of financial doors for you. You don’t even have to have graduated - dropping out works too, as we’ve seen in the case of numerous failed startup founders who’ve managed to raise money as Stanford dropouts (most famously, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos).

So getting into a good college is a ticket to the upper class, or at least the professional-managerial class. And getting into a prestigious high school is the step before that.

In the current socioeconomic climate of grim income inequality and desperate competition for the few good jobs that remain, it’s pretty rational for parents to want their kids to succeed within the educational system, and for their kids to internalise that aim as well. This is especially true for parents who don’t come from wealthy backgrounds, meaning they can’t really help their kids on their own, instead hoping that the public school system will be their saviour, providing their children with a gilded escalator to professional prosperity.

But then so why are Asians so predominant at these illustrious high schools? Are Asians somehow genetically or culturally superior, as the alt-right seems to think, wildly gesticulating at IQ charts as if IQ is a measure of innate anything?

I think a good rule of thumb when it comes to political analysis is that if it ignores material factors, then it’s probably incomplete. The first question here is why black/Latino kids tend to do so badly. Here, the material factors tell you a lot: poverty rates are, as you can imagine, much higher for black and Hispanic families (more than double white/Asian %, according to this 2016 study, and doing well in school is much easier if you don’t have to work and can afford e.g. private tutors). And there are less obviously material elements, like racial bias on the part of teachers/other students, or the fact that so few black/Hispanic students get into elite colleges that it doesn’t even seem worth putting in all that work.

The second question is why Asians are doing so much better than whites. Here, again, there’s an important material factor to consider: immigration policy. I don’t know the exact figures here, but it seems reasonable to conclude that most of the Asian kids at these schools are either themselves immigrants, or are second- or third-generation, partly due to natural geographic reasons and partly because the US has had a history of racist immigration laws which would dampened the number arriving in earlier generations. (Chinese people weren’t even allowed to be US citizens until 1943, for instance.)

But we know that the US border isn’t just open to anyone who applies. US immigration policy - to this day! - favours certain types of immigrant, and there are subtle differences based on race. For East Asians, the most common way of getting in to the US is through education: either you’re educated outside the US and move to the US for high-skilled, high-wage work for some corporation, or you achieve enough academic success to be able to continue your education in the US. (Another option is to essentially buy your way in, but that’s comparatively less common, just because there aren’t as many rich people as educated people. It’s also slightly different for South Asians, mostly as the result of destructive US foreign policy in e.g. Vietnam, but East Asians are predominant in the US because they’re more numerous.)

Now, I didn’t go to a prestigious high school in NYC, but I graduated from an international school in Beijing that served a similar purpose as a feeder school to elite colleges, so I can imagine what it’s like. Say you’re the child of recent immigrants from China. Your parents aren’t rich, and don’t have many elite connections, but they’re highly educated and believe strongly in the virtue of education (after all, it’s likely what got them into the US). They encourage you to focus all your efforts in doing well in the educational system so you can get into a good college, because they know it will be a huge indicator of your success later in life. And you’re going to have to get in on your own academic merits, because they certainly don’t have enough money to donate a building or buy off a coach or anything.

So you do your best to succeed within the system, because you don’t want to let your parents down, but also because you recognise the truth in what they’re saying. You fine-tune your efforts according to the ruthless dictates of academic excellence, to the point where your whole subjectivity is oriented around maximising personal achievement within the system - even if it means sacrificing some elements of personal development.

There’s some truth to the stereotype about Asian college applicants being academic robots, as if they’ve all simultaneously managed to attain the same overachieving profile: high GPA and test scores; playing the violin or piano; tons of volunteer work; really good at math and science. Occasionally deliberately uncommon hobbies or proficiencies just to show that they’re not like other Asian applicants, because they know some colleges will (either consciously or not) penalise them for being too stereotypical. (When I was applying to colleges, all my Asian friends and I just assumed that we would be subject to an “Asian penalty” and adjusted our expectations accordingly.) There may be genetic and cultural factors behind this, but I think the overwhelming reason is structural: if overachieving as a student is your best shot at upward mobility, and your parents are encouraging this behaviour (possibly even to the point of emotional blackmail), then why wouldn’t you?

The problem with being a “model minority” is that it’s not actually a good thing. The fact that Asians have been able to achieve socioeconomic success under American capitalism is often used as a stick to beat other minorities - despite the latter being much less likely to be well-educated or have access to well-paying jobs. It’s a way of dividing people based on race, by picking one group to be the “deserving” class and holding them up to prove that the less successful groups just aren’t trying hard enough, while neglecting to recognise that the field was tilted from the beginning.

Sadly, some Asians seem to find the model minority myth compelling, to the point where they oppose affirmative action (for underrepresented ethnic groups) because it might result in fewer spots for them. Instead, they suggest that admission be based entirely on merit, which I guess means having nearly all overachieving Asian students (plus the unavoidable contingent of students of all races whose parents bought their way in).

I do sympathise with this approach, even if I no longer agree. The trouble seeps in when you consider how “merit” is defined, and how it’s measured. Is the current admissions process actually fair? Does it truly assess some universally indisputable ideal of individual merit? Or … hear me out … are the tests and checklists always somewhat arbitrary, and always unfairly bound up with existing power structures?

Once you start to question the validity of the methods of assessment, everything else starts to feel more suspect, too. Why does merit matter so much in the first place? Why should your academic performance up until the age of 17 be so strongly determinative of your future success? Why do we have all to be in this Hunger Games-esque spectacle, competing with each other for the vanishingly few good jobs still out there?

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (representing the Bronx & Queens) had a good take on this: the worst thing about prestigious high schools is their scarcity. All schools should offer high-quality education to those who want it; that this isn’t currently the case says something about societal priorities. Zooming out further, though, what we see is an educational system that is increasingly being used as a filter - a way to triage workers. Toss some sinecures to the professional-managerial class, with their elite degrees and/or willingness to be servants of capital in exchange for protection; for the rest, nothing but a growing underclass consigned to precarity because they didn’t get into the right school as a teenager. You don’t even have to be a socialist to find something unfair in that.

The solution is simple in its description, but almost impossibly difficult in its implementation: abolish the use of elite indicators as a means of discrimination. In the UK, there’s a (semi-serious) movement around abolishing Oxbridge (Oxford/Cambridge), which sounds fairly reasonable to me. To do so, though, requires transforming the economic system that necessitates the use of proxies (like what college you went to) as a means of allocating resources. That means tackling inequality. (It always comes back to that, doesn’t it …)

Related read on the topic of the model minority myth, focused on South Asians: White Indians, for n+1. And in case you were wondering, I now think the ideal approach to the education system is to have a heavy dose of skepticism (i.e., knowing how broken it is) while also recognising the necessity of succeeding within in (i.e, trying despite knowing how broken it is). It’s not an easy balance to strike, but it’s probably the healthiest, in the long run.

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