Study: Asian-American Students Outscore Others Because They Try Harder

By Matthew Mientka on May 11, 2014 9:51 AM EDT

A superior cultural work ethic drives Asian American students to outperform others, researchers say.
A superior cultural work ethic drives Asian American students to outperform others, researchers say.

Though eugenics has long fallen from favor, a new study further dispels the notion that scholastic success Asian-Americans comes from anything other than a superior cultural work ethic.

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In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a pair of researchers from the United States and China analyzed data from two longitudinal surveys of 5,000 U.S. students from Asian and white racial backgrounds. Investigators Amy Hsina and Yu Xieb considered everything from GPA and test scores to immigration status in an effort to explain the achievement gap between Asian-American students and their white counterparts.

"We find that the Asian-American educational advantage over whites is attributable mainly to Asian students exerting greater academic effort and not to advantages in tested cognitive abilities or socio-demographics," Hsina and Xieb say. "We test explanations for the Asian-white gap in academic effort and find that the gap can be further attributed to cultural differences in beliefs regarding the connection between effort and achievement and immigration status.

Essentially, the study validates the premise of author Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 Outliers, while pulling further away from racialist ideas on intelligence espoused in The Bell Curve (1992) nearly a generation earlier. In Gladwell's best-seller, the popular academic argues that true success for the individual is less dependent on natural ability than one's perseverance.

Yet the study might also validate some conservatives who criticize America's present emphasis on self-esteem, as Asian-American students reported feelings of lower self-esteem and greater conflict with parents, supporting the notion of the "Tiger mom." In a recent best-seller, author Amy Chua explains how the Asian-American scholastic machine works.

"I was raised by very strict, Chinese immigrant parents, who came to the U.S. as graduate students with practically no money.  ... As parents, they demanded total respect and were very tough with my three younger sisters and me.  We got in trouble for A-minuses, had to drill math and piano every day, no sleepovers, no boyfriends. But the strategy worked with me."

That strategy counts for even more than socioeconomic status, according to Hsinsa and Xieb. In some cases, Asian-American students even outperform richer white students. 

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