Asians on Education: What Poverty?

All this talk in education about poverty being the major reason for poor academic achievement and performance got me thinking: Is it really just poverty?

No doubt it plays an important role. Researchers Hart & Risley’s well-cited longitudinal study in the early 1990s found that children in welfare families were exposed to substantially less language at home than in professional families: A difference of 300 words spoken per hour, which extrapolated over a year would result in 11 million words versus 3 million. Language experience tightly linked to large differences in child outcome. Not only do those in poverty tend to have less books in the home and less rich language spoken, but their home life is generally less stable:

Almost one in five children in poor or low-income families had moved in the last year, which means disrupted schooling and stress. In 2007, 1.7 million kids had a parent in prison, including one in fifteen black children. In 2008, around 460,000 children spent time in foster care. In 2009, 2.2 million were being raised by grandparents or other relatives…Poor kids are more likely to be raised by single mothers and to have parents who didn’t finish high school or go to college. Even just living with other poor people seems to harm kids. Those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods have lower reading scores; so do low-income kids who go to schools where the student body is 75 percent or more minority. Most black and Latino kids attend such schools. By the age of 2, poorer children have fallen cognitively behind those from wealthier families. (See full article, It Takes a Village, Not a Tiger)

Noted education historian Diane Ravitch believes poverty is the culprit. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss wrote about it. The results of the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) spawned discussions that pointed to it as the culprit for our low rankings. Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary School Principal (NASSP) Dr. Gerald Tirozzi found that our low scores could be explained by our relatively high poverty rate of 20%. No other developed country has one out of every five children living in poverty. Had we used comparable data, U.S. would actually come in first internationally. I even wrote about the its significance in my post, Can Schools Overcome Poverty?

With all this support, poverty appears to be the only culprit. So why have I started to feel uneasy with this conclusion?

Maybe because The Educated Society is about looking at the bigger picture, leading me to puzzle over why apologists exclude Asians in poverty discussions. After all, first and second generation Asian immigrants have historically toiled in urban Chinatown ghettos, yet academically “overachieved.” Along with whites, they have generally performed at the top of all academic measures. Only more recently have these neighborhoods started to gentrify.

On the other hand, The New York Times recently reported that the proficiency of black students was even bleaker than expected. Distilled scores from NAEP, considered the respected national standard, revealed that only 12% of black fourth grade boys were proficient in reading along with 12% of black eighth grade boys in math — compared to 38% and 44% for whites respectively. State scores in New York and Los Angeles made similar reports.

Apparently poverty can’t fully explain this, since “poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches,” according to the article. California’s 2007 report stated that almost half of impoverished Asians were at or above grade level in English Language Arts, compared with a quarter of Hispanics. Its results spurred state superintendent Jack O’Connell to tackle the uncomfortable topic about pernicious cultural factors at work among minorities.

O’Connell is not alone. Respected researcher and economist Dr. Ronald Ferguson, who is black, used quantitative data to convey this culture gap. Part of it, he asserts,

…is that black parents on average are not as academically oriented in raising their children as whites. In a wealthy suburb he surveyed, 40 percent of blacks owned 100 or more books, compared with 80 percent of whites. In first grade, the percentage of black and white parents reading to their children daily was about the same; by fifth grade, 60 percent to 70 percent of whites still read daily to their children, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent of blacks. (See full article).

Though he also ascribes economics and teacher bias to the blacks’ lower academic performances, Dr. Ferguson is clearly not mincing words — it is not just poverty, but a cultural deficit. This conclusion echoed similar and controversial reports by then-sociologists James Coleman and Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s regarding student background and family, respectively.

In talking with my Asian education colleagues in New York City, I found they held similar views.”Poverty may explain part of it, but Asian immigrants are poor AND they have a language barrier, so how do you explain the disproportionate results?” one asked. Everything I knew about poverty just did not add up when Asians came into the picture. (For that matter, immigrants from the West Indies — another minority group who have generally outperformed Blacks and Hispanics — also defied this explanation.)

I have readily believed poverty was the sole reason for the lack of achievement, yet I couldn’t explain why many Asians have overcome this (or perhaps I did not want to confront it). Having taught in Title 1 schools (by definition, poor) in New York’s Chinatown, I knew that in most cases both parents worked long hours — usually in restaurants or clothing factories, leaving grandparents to look after children. Yet they overachieved (I read that one parent retorted, it’s not that we overachieve, it’s that Americans underachieve). Almost all Asian parents showed up to parent teacher conferences and consistently asked me to give their children more work and support. If parents could not show up, their grandparents would, with kids in tow to translate. That helps build and sustain a culture prioritizing education.

After school programs also made up a big part of that culture, a tradition imported from the Far East. These supplemental programs, known as buxiban in Chinese, juku in Japanese, and hagwon in Korea, flourish in Chinatown all year round — after school, weekends, and summer. Some were locally funded and some were private, and all of them thrived. I know, because I’ve taught in two of them as well. Though some included physical activities and Chinese language instruction, academics was the priority. Not sports. Not arts.

I think former teacher Martha Sadler presented her view best in an article for The Santa Barbara Independent in 2007. Having worked in the Los Angeles United School District (LAUSD), she could not make sense of the Hispanic students’ low academic ratings despite strong teacher support:

Puzzling over this during one of my school breaks at LAUSD, I decided to go visit Castelar Street Elementary, a school in a Chinese neighborhood that continually received high test marks even though most of the students were English language learners from low-income families. The teachers were very good, but not better than those I had watched at my school, and their room decor was not nearly as attractive and print-rich.

I watched five different classes, and then followed a mass of kids to the neighborhood library, where they studied in an upstairs workroom. The scene was not much different from any other homework hall, though there were parents and grandparents watching the kids. They couldn’t really help with the actual assignments, but watched patiently as the children worked, talked, and afterward ran around the library, annoying the other library patrons until closing time.

Perplexed as to how this made for high test scores, I walked outside and found myself nose to nose with a Chinese school, located almost next door, where many of these same students spent several hours on the weekend studying in Mandarin or Cantonese. Education was everywhere in this little slice of Chinese culture. As I asked random parents why they thought their school did better than others, it was also pointed out that Castelar offers tutoring on the weekends.

Santa Barbara has a Chinese school, too, begun in 1994 by UCSB Chinese lecturer Jennifer Hsu. On Sundays, about 80 children study Mandarin reading and writing for two hours, interspersed by an hour of arts like calligraphy and folk dancing. The teachers are mostly parents, and the administrators are all volunteers.

Hsu explained to me that Asian cultures have been studious for thousands of years. It goes all the way back to Confucius in China, who was part of a flowering of philosophical schools circa 500 BCE, around the time the Chinese started using chopsticks and developed their writing system. Confucius was not only a scholar, but a teacher of literature, history, art, music, sports. While many of the parents at the Santa Barbara Chinese School are successful engineers and professors from Taiwan, Confucius’ emphasis on education wasn’t just for the elite – it spread throughout the classes and the region, elevating the importance of a good education across China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and beyond. That explains a lot.

One Santa Barbara Chinese School parent – whose children are staggeringly accomplished in sports, music, and scholastics – emphasized the role of poverty as a major factor in low achievement. Although the mother has a degree, she stays at home in order to raise her children. How, she asks, can people do that if they are working all the time?

“If my kids had a choice,” she said, explaining that she makes her children schedule playtime in with their more studious activities, “they would rather go play outside with their friends than play piana Any child would, but they have to discipline themselves. How can their family teach them this self-discipline if they are away from home working so much? The children go out to the streets to find a family feeling, and with a bunch of kids hanging out together with no adult supervision, guess what’s going to happen?”

Working-class struggles aside, the mother also pondered the cultural quandary, saying, “I don’t know how much the [Hispanic] cultures treasure education.”

The school condition, its resources, or even teachers were secondary. The Asian emphasis on education took precedence over the parent’s job, as in the aforementioned mother’s case. I drew parallel experiences teaching in New York’s Chinatown. Here parents sacrificed their limited paychecks to pay a substantial amount for top after school programs. Those who could not joined non-profit cultural organizations with after school services, like Chinese-American Planning Council (CPC) or Immigrant Social Services (ISS). The cultural emphasis on education completely overrides any other priority in the child AND the parents’ life.

My conclusion? Yes, poverty does matter, but culture matters more. This may not sound new, but in light of the current education debate pointing to poverty as the ultimate culprit of anemic achievement, it is in fact very significant. Thus, the surest way to address the achievement gap is not to focus on what impedes students (the negative), but what helps them (the positive). Given this framework, poverty is not the answer. Building a positive culture of education matters tremendously more, as Asians have found. It overcomes the language barrier, and it overcomes poverty. But they have had thousands of years to build it. How can we begin?

Start with my five-part series on Creating a Culture of Education.

4 thoughts on “Asians on Education: What Poverty?

  1. Great post. To invoke the requisite academic’s qualification: correlation is not causation. Poverty may highly correlate with academic performance, but that does not in itself constitute a cause. Two of the studies you mention – number of words heard/spoken by children, hours of reading with parents – identity specific causes of educational “underachievement.” But that just leads to another round of questions – *why* do some parents use fewer words or read less to their children?

    I’m not sure that “culture” is a satisfactory explanation, though. On its own, culture can’t explain any more than poverty. What I mean is that there is a tendency is to say “it’s Asian culture,” but then point to specific practices such as coming to parent-teacher meetings or attending after-school academic programs. There really isn’t anything specifically or inherently “Asian” about such practices. When research suggests that “culture” has predictive value, it just raises the issue of correlation and causation all over again.

    I like at the end how you bring in the “culture of education” – what can *everyone* learn from white or Asian students’ successes? What is that they are doing right that can be transferred to other contexts?

    1. I guess, one can never be sure that something is the sole cause of another, since there are too many mediating factors. Correlation is a much more forgiving word. Culture, certainly, is a very nebulous word – difficult to measure empirically. But it’s not so different than saying family influences achievement and learning. A nation’s culture is just like family, only on a larger scale. The other thing is that statistical measures such as multiple regression analyses have been widely established to have predictive validity, so coupled with extensive qualitative research, I guess it would be safe to say there is some consensus over whether one thing can predict or cause another.

      When I mention certain practices by Asians, I wasn’t implying that they were inherently Asian, just that going to P/T conferences, constantly asking for more homework, and after school programs are symptomatic of the Confucian culture of valuing education. Certainly Finland is not Confucian, but it has a strong collective culture that values important things like equality and education. Poverty is also a culture.

      Culture I believe is a much more substantial answer than people think. When someone falls in with the wrong crowd, the culture of that crowd is what changes them. When someone makes friends with good people, it rubs off. When riots and looting breaks out, many normally good people fall into it, because of the social culture surrounding them. It reminds me of the psychological study where an uninformed participant sits in a room with others (who are in on the experiment) and smoke is intentionally pumped into the room. When the participant observes it and sees nobody else alarmed, he stays put. But when the same is done while he’s alone, he leaves. The culture (those that make up your surrounding) has a huge effect.

  2. I think you need to consider systematic discrimination as part of the problem, both currently and historically. Ignatiev’s book “How the Irish became White” is a good example of the rise of a group of poor immigrants over a couple of generations – at the direct expense of African Americans living here, and often employed as a buffer between the Whites and Blacks at that time.

    Second, I struggle with the results of Hart & Risley – specifically the Moynihan-esque interpretations of them. I hope we agree Moynihan made an effort to overlook the systematic discrimination that led the mix of ethnic whites to suburbs and Blacks to subsidized housing complexes (Race: The Power of an Illusion is the best video summary of it).

    I think this has left many African Americans with experience that education does not get them what it gets others. The data in the 2011 Georgetown study shows that this may be accurate: Amara Philip (from GU’s website): “minorities would have to earn a master’s degree to earn as much as White non-Hispanic with a bachelor’s degree.” And I think about Nathan McCall, in his autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler talking about how the curriculum doesn’t relate to him. I do think that was getting better, but the testing and teach to the standards/standardized curriculum may have moved that backwards.

    I think the behaviors you mention are right on. I think the causes are clearly more complex, and the history of discrimination and unequal treatment of different minorities needs to be before a simple “poverty” or “culture” variable.

  3. Tom, good point re systemic discrimination. At the same time, there is a fine but distinct line between race and class, and they should not be conflated:

    1) The systemic discrimination you speak of appears to be related to race, yet one might argue that the systemic discrimination in subsidized housing is related more to class/SES (i.e., neoliberalism – the “movement” to privatize goods), or at the very least, both. If you’re interested, read my review of the book “The New Political Economy of Urban Education,” on 1/3/2013, which talks about the drive to displace poor (and yes, minority) people:

    2) For the same reason, I’m not sure that the “Moynihan-esque” comment is applicable to the Hart & Risley study. His inflammatory commentary were in regards to a “deficit” in the black family. H&R’s study, on the other hand, was about privileged and underprivileged families, which is based on class/SES. If H&S’s study is considered “Moynihan-esque,” then every advocacy group, study, or policy aimed at improving the disadvantaged (including Unicef, welfare policies, NCLB, etc.) would be “Moynihan-esque.” Moynihan’s perspective was parochial, more than anything.

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