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The Asian Advantage: Fact, Fiction, Fear, or Fantasy?

by Frederick L. Uy
November 2001test 

In test after test, both nationally and internationally, Asian students show superior performance in mathematics compared with their non-Asian counterparts. One such example is the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Students from such Asian countries as Singapore and Japan scored significantly higher than students from other nations. One may ask what skills, talent, or innate abilities these Asian students possess.

As a person of Asian ancestry, I was impressed with these results. What differed in our upbringing, schooling, way of life, or even intellectual capacity? Do we have a greater inclination toward mathematics and the sciences? Can we find any explanations for this phenomenon? In my quest for answers, I started by assessing my own background.

Growing up in an Asian household, I remember being told by my parents that education was the only gift and legacy that they could give me. Early on, I was exposed to the value of education. I had to do everything possible to achieve my best and exert the greatest effort for my education. I believe that this early exposure to the importance of education influenced my school performance and made me strive for excellence.

Asian parents do not hesitate to ask questions regarding their children's education. They want to be part of it and are willing to provide whatever is needed. They will demand to see the homework or the test score. If they learn that extra help is required, they will provide avenues with almost no hesitation or second thoughts about doing so. After all, excelling in school is of utmost importance and is a top priority. School always comes first, and that is final.

Asian parents make a concerted effort to see that their children grow up respectful, humble, patient, conscientious, and obedient. Parental rules must be followed at all times and sometimes at all costs. Parents may seem to rule with an iron hand but always with a benevolent heart. Students and parents, both Asian and non-Asian, have similar aspirations.

Parents point out early in life that nothing is handed out freely, that everything must be earned, that hard work and effort will pay off in the future, and that children must be patient as their time will come. This approach to life is very Confucian—both hard work and discipline are essential in success. When an Asian student performs badly, she or he blames himself or herself for failing to exert enough effort. When confronted with something unfamiliar in a test, Asian students often blame themselves for failing to anticipate such a problem. The bar is always set higher. Asian students and parents rarely blame teachers for low grades. They simply accept it and hope to do better next time.

When I was in school, students stayed mostly in one classroom and teachers came to us! Teachers stayed in the faculty room—a common room where each teacher had a desk. In this way, they became better acquainted with one another and could discuss curricular issues and concerns about students. They were in a room where they could share ideas.

Another factor that might contribute to Asian superiority in mathematics is teacher preparation, which some people believe may be the answer to the question about such superiority. However, since many Asian students in the United States still score higher than their non-Asian counterparts, the question calls for a better answer. After all, don't Asian students living in the United States obtain the same education as the rest of their classmates from the same teachers, some of whom are considered ill-prepared?

In conclusion, the fact is that the academic performance of Asian students, both in the United States and abroad, tends to be higher than that of other students, although the reasons are still unknown.


Frederick L. Uy is an assistant professor of mathematics education at California State University in Los Angeles. His professional interests include ethnomathematics, multicultural education, the history of mathematics, and curriculum development.




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