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Culture Explains Asians’ Educational Success

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Culture Explains Asians’ Educational Success

The Wall Street Journal March 27, 2019
OtherCulture & SocietyChildren & Family
EducationPre K-12

Black enrollment at New York’s elite public high schools was far higher in the 1930s than today.

New York City’s most selective public high schools released demographic data last week on students who were offered admission to the 2019 fall freshman class. The results were as predictable as the subsequent griping.

These eight schools admit kids based on a single standardized exam, and again Asian students, who comprise only 16.1% of the city’s public school system, were awarded a majority of the openings, 51.1%. By comparison, whites, who are 15% of public-school students, and blacks, who are 26%, were offered 28.5% and 4% of the seats, respectively. At Stuyvesant High, the most selective school, a mere seven of the 895 seats were offered to black students. In recent years, Asians who attend Stuyvesant and the city’s other two super-elite high schools, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, have regularly outnumbered their white peers by 2 to 1.

Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to scrap the admissions test to achieve more racial balance in the classroom. He has decried the outcomes as evidence of “massive segregation.” The Washington Post’s education writer likened the low black acceptance rates at New York’s top schools to the recently exposed college bribery scandal, calling it “an admissions scandal of a different sort.” Apparently, when black students demonstrate academic excellence, it’s celebrated. When Asian students do so, it’s scandalous.

The notion that these schools aren’t diverse enough tells you something about the politicization of terms like “diversity.” Asians not only enrich these schools racially and ethnically but also bring economic diversity. The Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz has reported in City Journal that a disproportionate number of Asians admitted to these schools come from a low-income neighborhood in Brooklyn where Chinese immigrant parents “have crammed themselves into dorm-like quarters, working brutally long hours waiting tables, washing dishes, and cleaning hotel rooms.”

The Asian student outcomes we see year after year aren’t the result of luck or “privilege.” They stem from hard work and a culture that prioritizes learning. Research shows that Asian kids read more books, watch less television, and study longer. In poorer families, money goes toward test-prep instead of $200 sneakers. The results are obvious at elite schools nationwide, where even low-income Asian students have outperformed middle- and upper-income students from other groups. “For Chinese immigrants,” Ms. Hymowitz writes, “education for the next generation is close to a religion. It opens the path to a good life.”

Mr. de Blasio wants to replace the exam with an admissions scheme that would reserve slots at the specialized high schools for the top 7% of graduates from every city middle school. According to one report cited by the New York Times, the mayor’s plan would cut Asian enrollment at the elite schools by half, but Asian parents aren’t the only ones complaining. At a town-hall meeting in December, black parents also expressed concern that tinkering with the admissions process will increase racial tensions and set up their own children to fail. “We know that middle schools are not all created the same,” said one mother, according to a report in the New York Post. She added that black students are concentrated in the lowest-performing schools.

Mr. de Blasio is a progressive Democrat, and like many on the left he is quick to equate racial disparities with racial bias. But black and Hispanic students of previous generations were accepted to the city’s exam schools at significantly higher rates than today. In 1989, Brooklyn Tech’s student body was 51% black and Hispanic. Today, it’s less than 12%.

Stuyvesant’s enrollment history tells a similar story, according to Stanford economist Thomas Sowell, who attended the school in the 1940s while growing up in Harlem. The proportion of blacks attending Stuyvesant as far back as the 1930s approximated the proportion of blacks living in the city at the time. That began to change in the latter part of the 20th century, when the socioeconomic status of blacks was rising and segregation was decreasing. Between 1979 and 1995, the school’s black enrollment dropped to 4.8% from 12.9%, and by 2012 it had fallen to 1.2%.

“In short, over a period of 33 years, the proportion of blacks gaining admission to Stuyvesant High School fell to just under one-tenth of what it had been before,” Mr. Sowell writes in “Wealth, Poverty and Politics.” “None of the usual explanations of racial disparities—racism, poverty or ‘a legacy of slavery’—can explain this major retrogression over time.”

It is not systemic racism but changes in black cultural behaviors in recent decades that offer the more plausible explanation for widening racial gaps in education and other areas. Telling blacks that white prejudice or Asian overachievement or some other external factor is primarily to blame for these outcomes may help the mayor and his party politically, but we shouldn’t pretend that lowering standards helps blacks or any group advance.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by TheaDesign / iStock