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Explaining Asian American Academic Achievement PDF Print E-mail

By Stanley Sue and Sumie Okazaki
From "Asian-American Educational Achievements: A Phenomenon in Search of an Explanation"
American Psychologist
©1990 American Psychological Association
August 1990

The academic achievements of Asian Americans cannot be solely attributed to Asian cultural values. Rather, as for other ethnic minority groups, their behavioral patterns, including achievements, are a product of cultural values (i.e., ethnicity) and status in society (minority group standing). Using the notion of relative functionalism, we believe that the educational attainments of Asian Americans are highly influenced by the opportunities present for upward mobility, not only in educational endeavors but also in noneducational areas.

Noneducational areas include career activities such as leadership, entertainment, sports, politics, and so forth, in which education does not directly lead to the position. To the extent that mobility is limited in noneducational avenues, education becomes increasingly salient as a means of mobility. That is, education is increasingly functional as a means for mobility when other avenues are blocked.

Several propositions are apparent. First, similar to the cultural explanation, relative functionalism assumes that there is in any particular group a drive for upward mobility and that cultural values and practices can affect educational attainments. Second, when opportunities for upward mobility are limited or are perceived to be limited in other areas, educational achievements should increase. This is particularly true with groups that are culturally oriented toward education and have experienced academic success. Third, trying to change American educational values and practices in the direction of Asian values may result in only small increments in educational attainments, inasmuch as mainstream Americans have other avenues of mobility.

Culture Relative Functionalism

Assumptions and Practices

Cultural values can aid, be irrelevant to, or hinder educational pursuits.  Asian-American values foster educational achievements.  Asian cultural values are directly related to educational achievements.  With increased acculturation, educational achievements decline. Asian Americans experience and receive limited mobility in noneducational areas of success. The greater the limitations in noneducational areas, the more salient education becomes as a means for mobility.

Research Tasks

Identify relevant cultural values and correlate with educational achievement over time. Examine perceptions of mobility in noneducational areas; correlate perceptions with educational pursuits and priorities.

Societal Implications

Inculcate in others those Asian American values that facilitate educational achievements. In addition to cultural values, the status and situation of Asians in American society must be studied.
Note:  The relative functionalism perspective does not disagree with the assumptions, tasks, and implications of the cultural thesis.  It simply adds another dimension to explain the achievements of Asian Americans.

The above table contrasts the assumptions made by the cultural and relative functionalism perspectives. In the cultural interpretation, investigators traditionally assume that some ethnic groups have cultural values that match or fit the society in which they live. For example, in the classic book Assimilation in American Life, Milton Gordon (1964) argued that the extraordinary achievements of Jews in this country can primarily be explained by cultural, middle-class values such as thrift, sobriety, ambition, and ability to delay immediate gratification for long-range goals. Sue and Kitano (1973) have also found that many social scientists attribute the educational success of Chinese and Japanese Americans to cultural values that promote upward mobility in this country—values that emphasize hard work, family cohesion, patience, and thrift. However, many Asian values such as emphasis on the collective rather than on the individual, hierarchical role structures rather than egalitarian relationships, and respect for authority are not fully consistent with White, middle-class values (Hirschman & Wong, 1986). Another problem with the cultural explanation is that cultural values are not necessarily predictive of educational attainments. As noted by Ogbu and Matute-Bianchi (1986), the Chinese in China, presently and in the past, have not shown relatively high rates of educational attainments and literacy. This has led investigators to question why children of Chinese peasants do so well in American schools in contrast to their peers in China. Indeed, in mainland China, where intellectuals are under increased scrutiny, receive inadequate salaries, and find other jobs more financially rewarding, we see a decline in the proprotion of students applying for admission into graduate programs in that country.

As argued by Steinberg (1981), cultural values interact with conditions in any particular society. In the case of Jews, he noted that:

"In terms of their European background, Jews were especially well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities they found in America. Had Jews immigrated to an industrial society without industrial skills, as did most other immigrants, their rich cultural heritage would have counted for little. Indeed, a parallel situation exists today in Israel, where Jews immigrating from underdeveloped countries in North Africa typically lack the occupational and educational advantages of the earlier settlers, and despite the fact that all share the same basic religion, the recent immigrants find themselves concentrated at the bottom of Israeli society. Thus, in large measure Jewish success in America was a matter of historical timing. That is to say, there was a fortuitous match between the experience and skills of Jewish immigrants, on the one hand, and the manpower needs and opportunity structures, on the other. It is this remarkable convergence of factors that resulted in an unusual record of success." (p. 103)

In the case of Chinese and Japanese Americans, Suzuki (1977) has also taken issue with a cultural interpretation of their success. Although acknowledging that respect for education is a cultural value among these two groups, he also advanced the proposition that Asian Americans came to pursue education because of their status as a minority group. Many labor unions discriminated against Asians, refusing them union membership during the 1940s. In addition, technological advancements and an expanding economy after World War II required educated professionals and white collar employees. Thus, one development limited occupational opportunities for manual laborers and the other placed a premium on professional–technical skills requiring advanced education. In such a situation, mobility through education took increased significance, above and beyond the contributions of Asian cultural values. Using a similar argument, Connor (1975) attributed the high educational attainments of Japanese Americans to the denial of opportunities to participate in social and other extracurricular school activities in the pre-World War II period. This also set the stage for emphasizing educational achievements.

For relative functionalism to be a viable explanation, at least three issues must be addressed. First, relative functionalism and the cultural thesis would predict decreasing educational achievements with acculturation of Asian Americans. However, each differs in the factors that account for decrements in performance. One proposes that increased opportunities for mobility make education a less preferred avenue for mobility, whereas the other assumes that a loss of cultural values is responsible for decreased achievement levels. Is there evidence that opportunities for mobility influence achievements? Second, relative functionalism assumes that limitations in mobility in noneducational endeavors influences educational levels. Is it possible that educational values and attainments affect interest or performance in noneducational means of mobility? Third, is there evidence that Asian Americans perceive or experience limitations in non-educational avenues for mobility?

Unfortunately, critical tests comparing the cultural and relative functionalism models have not been conducted. Dornbusch et al. (1987) and Ritter and Dornbusch (1989) have found that Asian-American achievement levels tend to be inversely related to the number of generations in the United States, apparently supporting a cultural interpretation (i.e., decreased maintenance of Asian cultural values results in lower academic grades). With increased acculturation, it has been assumed that Asian values of hard work, discipline, and respect for education have eroded. However, an inverse relation between acculturation to American values and academic achievements is not incompatible with relative functionalism. Increased acculturation also results in more avenues for mobility. For example, Sue and Zane (1985) found that recent Chinese immigrants were significantly more likely than were acculturated Chinese to agree with the statement that their choices of academic majors were influenced by their English skills. These students had low English proficiency, averaging in the 18th percentile on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. They confined their selection of majors to fields requiring quantitative skills (e.g., mathematics and computer sciences) rather those requiring more sophisticated English proficiency (e.g., social sciences and humanities). Increased English proficiency is likely to be related to knowledge of American society and ways of getting ahead, which may ultimately decrease the relative value of education as a means of mobility. In addition, it is highly likely that the recent immigrants perceive career limitations and, therefore, avoid those fields such as the social sciences and humanities, in which English facility and interpersonal skills specific to American society are needed. Mathematics and sciences are more likely to emphasize technical competence. Here we have an example of directing educational pursuits because of perceived limitations in certain career areas.

With respect to the other questions involving cause effect (Do educational achievements limit interest or pursuit of noneducational endeavors, or do limitations in these endeavors influence educational pursuits?) and perceptions of limitations in noneducational avenues, no studies have directly examined the issues. Obviously, if Asian Americans perform well in education and consequently assume professional and technical positions, they may be more motivated to continue this pattern of mobility. They may even deemphasize activities in such areas as sports, the entertainment industry, and political positions because they have been successful in securing education-based careers. However, there is evidence from various sources that many Asian Americans perceive limitations in their career choices or upward mobility because of English language skills or social discrimination (Sue, Sue, Zane, & Wong, 1985). In a survey of Asian-American students at the University of California, Berkeley, Ong (1976) found that respondents cited as reasons for obtaining an education (a) ability to make money, increasing the chances for a better job, and (b) the difficulty in finding other avenues for advancement because of discrimination. Hirschman and Wong (1986) have argued that “Education was a channel for the social mobility of Asians, partly because they were frozen out of some sectors of the economy” (p. 23). Hearings sponsored by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1980) resulted in testimonies that documented restrictions in occupational mobility, especially for those without much education (Pian, 1980; Wang, 1980). The point is that education is perceived as a viable means for mobility, in view of limitations for success in other areas. Thus Asian Americans expend great efforts in attaining an education because they have been successful and also because without a strong educational background, their mobility is limited. Research strategies that focus on the relation between cultural values and education provide an incomplete picture.

If Asian Americans encounter and perceive restrictions in noneducational areas of mobility, as do other ethnic minority groups such as Blacks and Latinos, why do these other ethnic groups fail to adopt education as a means of mobility? Addressing this question—and that poses a real challenge—is beyond the scope of this article. It is worth noting that ethnic minority groups have different cultural backgrounds and different historical and contemporary experiences in the United States. Precisely because of the importance of the interaction between culture and minority group status, we maintain that cultural interpretations of the success of Asian Americans are inadequate.

More specifically, Ogbu and Matute-Bianchi (1986) have proposed that individuals develop folk theories of success (e.g., “If I get a good education, I will succeed in getting a good job and maintain a high standard of living” or “Even if I get a good education, people will discriminate against me”). Factors such as cultural values, discrimination, past success, beliefs in self-efficacy, availability of successful role models, and so on, influence the folk theories. Mickelson (1990) has found that although Blacks hold favorable abstract attitudes concerning the value of education, they are less likely than Whites to believe in the value of education in their own lives. As mentioned previously, Ritter and Dornbusch (1987) found that Asian Americans tended to believe that success in life has to do with the things studied in school. The folk theory for Asian Americans may be, “If I study hard, I can succeed, and education is the best way to succeed.”

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