LA Times: “Why Do Asian Students Generally Get Higher Marks Than Latinos?”

Hector Becerra of the LA Times visits a high school near downtown LA that has basically no whites or blacks, and asks students and teachers “Why do Asian students generally get higher marks than Latinos?”

Lincoln Heights is mostly a working-class Mexican American area, but it`s also a first stop for Asian immigrants, many of them ethnic Chinese who fled Vietnam.

With about 2,500 students, Lincoln High draws from parts of Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Chinatown.

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can`t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian.

“A lot of my friends say the achievement gap is directly attributable to the socioeconomic status of students, and that is not completely accurate,” O`Connell said. “It is more than that.”

But what is it? O`Connell called a summit in Sacramento that drew 4,000 educators, policymakers and experts to tackle the issue. Some teachers stomped out in frustration and anger.

No Lincoln students stomped out of their discussion. Neither did any teachers in a similar Lincoln meeting. But the observations were frank, and they clearly made some uncomfortable.

To begin with, the eight students agreed on a few generalities: Latino and Asian students came mostly from poor and working-class families.

According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team. …

Asian parents are more likely to pressure their children to excel academically, the students agreed. …

The journalist winds up with the usual George W. Bush-style postmodernist explanation–the soft bigotry of low expectations. If only everybody would just assume the two groups are equal, then they would be.

Try and falsify that proposition!

Of course, the long article doesn`t mention the two dread letters, but, on the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that Chinese tend to overachieve and Mexican-Americans tend to underachieve relative to their IQs. Family expectations and pressure are certainly a plausible explanation for over vs. underachievement.

The subtler question that I want to focus on, though, is whether it`s better, all else being equal, for Hispanics to be in a school that`s 85% Hispanic and 15% Chinese or in a school that is 100% Hispanic?

That`s a tough problem for social science to crack since all else is never equal. If the school was really bad, it wouldn`t be 15% Asian–the Chinese parents would get their kids out. So you can assume that Lincoln isn`t a really awful, dangerous school like, say, Jefferson, where there were brown vs. black race riots a few years ago. Not a lot of Chinese at Jefferson. (Here`s Roger D. McGrath`s 2005 American Conservative article on Jefferson High. By the way, I don`t think there are many high schools that are perpetually 85% black and 15% Asian–it sounds unstable – but I could be wrong.)

I don`t have much of a hunch what a good study would find. I could see it going either way. Having 15% Asians around might help the smart, nerdy Hispanics find friends, and might keep better teachers around the school. (Good teachers like to teach–i.e., to impart learning–so good teachers gravitate toward schools with good students–i.e., those more able and willing to be taught.) Being 15% Asian means there are enough advanced students around to justify advanced classes.

On the other hand, having an academic-dominant minorityof Asians in a high school may well further racialize attitudes toward studying. If your name ends in Z and you are a student at Lincoln, what`s the point of setting out in 9th grade to be valedictorian? No Hispanic has been valedictorian at Lincoln H.S. since the mind of man runs not to the contrary. To study hard is to act Asian, to betray La Raza. If Mexican students tried to beat the Chinese at their own game, and failed, well, that would just prove the Chinese are smarter. So it`s better for Mexican racial self-esteem to make sure nobody even tries, to proclaim that studying is just something Asians high school students do because they`re, uh, no good at tagging and getting pregnant.

That`s basically what the most respected institutions in our society–the LA Times, the State Superintendent of Schools, etc.–tell them to think, right? That there can`t possibly be an innate intelligence gap between the Mexicans and the Chinese, because if there were, it would be the worst thing in the history of the world. It would mean that Hitler was right, that Nazis should rule America. So, to prevent a Nazi takeover, the Hispanic students will do their part by screwing off instead of studying. (It`s not hard to persuade teens not to study.)

In contrast, at a 100% Hispanic school like Garfield or Roosevelt (nearby East LA schools that don`t include Chinatown–Jaime Escalante taught AP Calculus at Garfield), well, somebody Hispanic has to be valedictorian each year. So, trying to be valedictorian there, while nerdy and uncool, is likely to be less racially fraught than at an integrated school.

As I said, I don`t really know which way it would go. People have similarly argued over this type of question concerning Historically Black Colleges for a long time–is a black kid with an 1100 SAT score better off at Howard where he`d quite competitive academically or at Georgetown, where he`d feel like Michelle Obama did at Princeton and Harvard Law School?