Learning From Asian-American Success

Shrinking disparities by penalizing high achievers helps no one.

When the Scripps National Spelling Bee crowned 14-year-old Harini Logan as its winner in early June, some took her victory as an opportunity to lecture Indian-Americans about their supposed privilege. In an article published after Logan’s win, Amherst College equity officer Pawan Dhingra said that Indian-Americans who participate in academic extracurricular activities and competitions “contribute to what I see as a troubling trend: the widening educational gaps between higher-income and lower-income families.” The fact that Indian-American families work hard on academics certainly seems to have paid off: since 2008, 21 out of the 23 winners of the National Bee were of South Asian descent. But Dhingra doesn’t fully explain why this disparity is a problem. And even assuming that it is, he doesn’t present any solutions.

Dhingra’s recommendation appears to be that high-achieving students should just stop working so hard, especially if they come from wealthy families. His argument undergirds a larger class of policies that promote “educational equity” at the expense of academic excellence. Schools in California, New York, and Washington recently eliminated their honors classes. Harvard implicitly set higher testing thresholds for recruitment for Asian-American applicants. And many universities no longer require SAT or ACT scores in admissions.

Educational-equity supporters believe that standards should change to adjust more effectively for “structural biases” against underrepresented minorities. They argue that honors classes make lower-performing students feel inadequate and give wealthy students access to better public resources. Students who excel academically do tend to be disproportionately high-income—but the solutions proposed by equity advocates focus on holding back successful students who come from the “wrong” background instead of directly helping students who struggle. Equity policies present quick, superficial fixes instead of addressing deeply ingrained cultural problems. A more sensible approach would recommend that academically struggling students and families model their decision-making after those who succeed academically and economically.

Asian-American success can be attributed to stable family structures, high parental expectations, and a devotion to academics. Asian-Americans have the lowest divorce rate compared with all other racial groups in the United States. Stable marriages are statistically linked with many desirable life outcomes for children. They also allow households to build more wealth; married couples’ household incomes are double that of single mothers. Married couples can therefore financially support children more effectively than single parents. Children with married parents are more likely to complete high school and college. And growing up under a stable marriage has lasting effects: children of married parents are much more likely to move upward in the income distribution as adults.

Asian-Americans also generally expect more from their children. Many Asian parents, who are often immigrants, make extraordinary sacrifices to move to America to secure better lives for their children. A 2012 Pew Research poll found that a disparate share of Asian-Americans considered “being a good parent” one of their top priorities, compared with the general American public. The immense value that Asian-American parents place on education means that they are highly supportive when their children participate in academic extracurriculars.

Finally, Asian-Americans view education as an investment in their children’s future. They willingly sacrifice other financial wants to invest in education. Such investments are often portrayed as out of reach for the average family, but many of the commonly used resources are well within normal ranges of household expenditures. Hexco, which Dhingra highlights, is a popular service for spelling-bee preparation. Hexco’s coaching services can be expensive, but the company sells its extensive word lists for anywhere from $80 to $220—a price range somewhere between athleisure apparel to monthly spending at restaurants. Such word lists are often the core of spelling-bee preparation, and an active parent can use them to help their child study. Tutoring services come in a wide range of prices. Kumon, for example, charges between $80 and $150 per month—for comparison, the average American’s phone bill is $144 per month. In any case, excessive spending is not necessary for a child to perform well academically. Free online resources are available, as are school and public libraries. And investments of time can be just as valuable as investments of money.

Americans can learn from Asian-American success. Parents should expect more, not less, from their children. Of course, such expectations can go too far. But they need not be overdone to improve academic achievement. Canceling honors classes, moving unprepared students ahead, and implying that Indian-American students should “play small” is certainly not the answer. Life is not a zero-sum game. The successes of some should inspire others to do better, not fuel bitterness and envy.