Repaying a Debt: The Educational Achievement of Asian-Americans

Editor’s Note: The address which follows was given by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett on October 22 to the Vietnamese League of Orange County, California. Acknowledging the impressive educational achievements of a new generation of Asian-American immigrants to the United States—and in particular the refugees from Vietnam—Dr. Bennett emphasized the crucial importance of the family in academic performance. The address is published here with the kind permission of Secretary Bennett.

Tonight, in this brief talk, I want to focus on the educational achievements of Asian-Americans; I wish to discuss some of the lessons which their achievements can teach the rest of us, and to talk a little about some of the obstacles which still stand in their way. Last but not least; I hope that you and I can get to know each other a little better this evening, and begin what I hope will become an ongoing conversation about the future of American education.

Let me start with a personal recollection: Shortly after becoming Secretary of Education, I participated in a White House ceremony honoring the 1985 National Teacher of the Year, a thirty-two year old high school history teacher named Therese Knecht Dozier. The National Teacher of the Year awards program is the most prestigious of its kind in the United States, and Mrs. Dozier, who had been chosen from among the nation’s more than two and one-half million elementary and secondary school classroom teachers, was obviously a very remarkable young woman. Not the least remarkable thing about Mrs. Dozier is her background: Born in Saigon of a Vietnamese mother and German father, and orphaned as an infant, she had been sent to a French orphanage, and was eventually adopted by a U.S. Army officer. In fact, Mrs. Dozier and her brother are believed to be the first Vietnamese children adopted by Americans and brought to this country.

Upon receiving her Teacher of the Year Award, Mrs. Dozier explained that her Vietnamese background had a lot to do with her choice of a career in teaching. “I have always been very conscious of having been given a chance to make something of myself,” she said. “I want to give that chance to others and to share the excitement of learning that I have always felt. Teaching is my way of repaying a debt.”

Now, I know that it is very dangerous to generalize about any cultural group. And in the case of “Asian-Americans”—an umbrella term which actually covers over twenty nationalities, and countless ethnic identities, each with its own language and culture—generalizations are particularly hazardous. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Mrs. Dozier’s remarks touched on a number of themes that reverberate throughout the Asian-American community: a love of learning, a love of the United States, a feeling of genuine gratitude for the freedom and opportunities that this country offers, and above all, a deep determination “to make something out of oneself.”

And, indeed, Asian-Americans have made something of themselves. According to the 1980 census, Asians have the highest median family income of any group in the country: $23,600, compared to $20,800 for other American families. This in turn reflects the educational achievement of Asian-Americans: three quarters of Asian-Americans are high school graduates, and fully 35 percent of the Asian-Americans age 25 and older have graduated from college—more than twice the proportion of other Americans.

Indeed, it is in the area of education that Asian-Americans have made their most spectacular gains and have taught us the most profound lessons. At selective universities, for example, the proportion of Asian-Americans is extraordinarily high. Asian-Americans comprise 8 percent of the student body at Harvard, and 10 percent of its freshman class, up from 3 percent a decade ago. Here in California, Asian-Americans constitute 22 percent of all students at Berkeley, and 21 percent at UCLA.

Equally telling are the results of a three year study of some 1,400 Indochinese households conducted for the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Now this study, directed by Professor Nathan Caplan of the University of Michigan, concentrated on the most recent Indochinese refugees who risked their lives to escape the persecutions afflicting their homelands. Collectively, these refugees are often referred to in the press as the “Boat People.” Their escape—as I need hardly emphasize to members of this audience—was a truly fearsome and heroic ordeal. Literally adrift at sea, exposed to brutal pirate attacks and other cruel hardships, tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of “Boat People” never made it to safety and today lie beneath the South China Sea—the victims of Communist oppression and tyranny. Still, more than 730,000 Indochinese refugees made it to this nation. The United States was proud to welcome them. The United States is proud to have them, as our newest immigrants—our newest citizens.

Unlike the more educated Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States in the immediate aftermath of Saigon’s fall, the Boat People who arrived in this country had been farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, laborers and students in Southeast Asia. Arriving with little or no knowledge of English, with no savings or other resources, and with few marketable skills, the obstacles seemed insurmountable. “And yet,” says Professor Caplan, “considering their hardships and all the odds against them, this group of immigrants has in fact demonstrated remarkable progress.”

Nowhere has this progress been more remarkable than in the area of education. On national standardized tests of academic achievement, 27 percent of the refugee children scored in the 90th percentile on math achievement—almost three times better than the national average. And although they scored somewhat lower than the national average in English language proficiency, they outperformed their school-aged peers on general grade-point average, with 27 percent—more than a quarter—earning A or A- minus. Overall, their scholastic average was 3.05 on a 4.0 scale, or slightly above a B. As Professor Caplan observed, this is a truly remarkable achievement by any group—let alone by a group facing all the odds against them that this group faced.

How can the success of these immigrants, and of Asian-Americans in general, be explained? Clearly, many fashionable theories about educational and social achievement, theories which emphasize the deterministic role of class, of the environment, of material factors, of “society”—do not apply here. On the contrary, what I believe the success of Asian-Americans demonstrates is the importance of values—values which people carry with them in their heads and in their hearts, values which remain with them when their possessions are gone, and their homeland just a memory.

One such value, of particular significance in educational performance, is the existence of close ties between parents and children, and the willingness of parents to sacrifice for the sake of their children’s education. At the Department of Education, we have been saying for some time now that in education, the parent is the child’s most important teacher, even the indispensable teacher. There is by now a good deal of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, which emphasizes the concern of Asian-American parents for their children’s schooling. For example, a teacher at the Bronx High School of Science, a very selective school with a large proportion of Asian-American students, told of a conversation she once had with an Asian-American parent: “He said that when he was younger, he couldn’t decide whether he should work in a restaurant or in laundry. He decided that when you work in a restaurant, you’re away too many hours. ‘If I work in a laundry,’ he said, ‘I can see my children and ask them: What did you learn in school today? Show me what you learned today.’ He told me he’d gone to work in a laundry, and he said: ‘I got a doctor; I get a lawyer.’ ” No one can be more deserving of tribute—of honor—than parents like this one.

Another story which makes much the same point concerns an Asian-American community residing in Riverdale, New York. School teachers and principals in Riverdale were surprised to discover that each Asian-American family was buying two sets of textbooks. After doing a little investigating, they found that one set was for the child and the second set was for the mother, who could better coach her child if she worked during the day to keep up with his lessons. These teachers said that children entering school in the fall with no English ability finished in the spring at the top of their classes in every subject.

Asian-American parents do not make these sacrifices simply so their children will do well materially. They do so out of a deep respect for learning. I am told that in Vietnam—when Vietnam was a free nation—it was the case that teachers were revered by both parents and children. They rank, I believe, just below kings, and above fathers, in the Confucian ethical system. When Vietnamese are asked to describe their culture, “love of learning” is a characteristic frequently mentioned.

For most Vietnamese, this emphasis on learning has been maintained in the United States. A 1983 study by the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington, D.C., noted that:

The Vietnamese students’ respect for teachers is a very noticeable characteristic in a typical American school, as it promotes behavior which is in contrast to that of some American students. The Vietnamese students, in general, are well-behaved, quiet and polite in the classroom, and some of our interviewees reported being horrified at some of the behaviors of their fellow classmates, such as talking back to teachers, telling a teacher to “shut up,” talking in class, and putting their feet on a desk.

Yet another Asian-American value which has a great deal to do with educational success is self-discipline, a willingness to do things the hard way, if that’s what’s required. A recent study prepared by Dr. Samuel Peng, of the Department of Education, demonstrated that Asian-American high school students spent considerably more time on homework than any other students. Dr. Peng’s study also demonstrated that Asian-American students were less likely than other students to be absent from school and had higher educational aspirations than other students.

Of course, the virtues which characterize the Asian-American community, and account for its success—hard-work, self-discipline, perseverance, industry, respect for family, for learning and for country—are not confined to Asian-Americans alone. They are in fact traditional American virtues. These are values familiar to readers of Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, or to generations of American school children who learned from McGuffey’s Reader. They are the virtues preached down through the ages by the greatest Americans. Listen to the distinguished black American, Frederick Douglass, one hundred and thirty years ago: “What we want is character…. It is a thing we must get for ourselves. We must labor for it. It is gained by toil—hard toil…. It is attainable; but we must attain it, and attain it each for himself. I cannot for you, and you cannot for me.” Today, Asian-Americans are reminding all of us of these fundamental truths.

So far, I have focused on the strengths of the Asian-American community. They are considerable, and remarkable. Let me now turn to some of the obstacles facing Asian-Americans in their attempt to succeed in American society.

Many of the problems Asian-Americans—and especially Southeast Asian refugees—face in this country have to do with the strain of social and psychological adjustment to a foreign culture, a foreign language and a foreign way of life. According to a 1980 study, for example, even after 5 years, 81 percent of Southeast Asian refugees still had serious concerns about being separated from missing family members; 67 percent had painful memories of the war and their departure from home; 59 percent were homesick; and 58 percent were worried about difficulties in communicating with those in the home country. That such concerns for loved ones left behind can affect a child’s school performance is obvious. Thus, a teacher recently recounted a conversation she had with a Vietnamese girl in the third grade. The teacher wanted the girl to look at her while speaking, so she gently touched the girl’s chin and raised her face. At that point, the child suddenly burst into tears. When the teacher asked the girl what she had done wrong, the child responded, “Nothing, your hand just felt like my mother’s hand used to feel, and she’s still in Vietnam.”

There is little the government—or anyone—can do to relieve this sort of anguish. We can express our deepest sympathy, and our faith in the strong character of our newest immigrants. We recognize this loss, this pain. We grieve with their suffering. But there is another obstacle facing Asian-Americans, and other Americans too, that we can do something about. That is the need to attain English language skills.

We believe that the proposals recently advanced by this Administration to reform bilingual education will help in this regard. Under the current system, local school districts in dealing with the federal government often have little flexibility in responding to the particular needs of students whose home language is not English. If local school districts want to receive Federal assistance, they are virtually compelled to follow a particular method of instruction. The reforms which we are currently exploring with Congress will allow local school districts to choose the sort of program, or to design the combination of programs, best suited to the task of teaching their non-English speaking children English. For school districts serving recent Asian immigrants who speak a wide variety of languages, giving local school districts greater flexibility in designing their programs should enable Asian-American students to get more and better English language instruction. We are not retreating in our commitment to non-English speaking students. Rather we are acting to fulfill that commitment by giving local school authorities and parents the opportunity to do what works best for their children.

A final educational issue of concern to Asian-Americans is the issue of discrimination. For several years now, Asian student associations at Ivy League universities have cited admissions figures showing that a smaller percentage of Asian-American students than other applicants are being accepted. These figures might indicate that unofficial quotas are in effect in some universities limiting the number of Asian-American students. But the evidence is less than conclusive, and it is possible that factors other than anti-Asian discrimination are at work here. If, however, concrete evidence of quotas and anti-Asian discrimination does come to light, we will take the appropriate action to remedy the situation. Discrimination against Asian-Americans is as unacceptable as all other forms of racial or religious discrimination.

Let me conclude by referring once again to the Caplan study on the scholastic achievement of Southeast Asian refugee children. “The main reason for the success of these children,” Professor Caplan writes, “appears to be due to the compatibility of what they bring with them—traditional cultural values, cohesive family structure, achievement orientation…—with the requirements for success in the United States. This may account for the rather rapid achievement of economic self-sufficiency by the parents, as well as the scholastic success of their children.” These qualities—traditional values, strong families, an orientation toward achievement—are by no means exclusively Southeast Asian. They are in fact traditional American qualities. More important, they are universal qualities—universal prerequisites to the success of individuals and the well-being of a free society.

Our newest immigrants remind us of one additional point, as well: the tremendous burst of creative energy that is released when former victims of tyranny and oppression are presented with the very special opportunity which American society offers. For our free country offers the Opportunity, as Lincoln put it, of “an open field and a fair chance” for every American’s “industry, enterprise and intelligence.” Our country promises that we “may all have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations.” Many Americans take this promise for granted. But perhaps because so many Asian-Americans have personal experience of the massive apparatus of repression, they may have a greater appreciation of the gift of freedom. And perhaps because of what they endured to become citizens of this nation, they bring with them a determination to make the best use of the opportunities America offers. Thus they struggle and sacrifice and work hard in order, as Mrs. Dozier put it, “to make something of themselves” and “repay a debt.”

In doing this, Asian-Americans in fact put the rest of us in their debt. For they remind us of both the opportunities and the responsibilities of American citizenship. And they remind us—as Lincoln said—that a nation like ours “is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”


  • William J. Bennett

    William J. Bennett is an American conservative pundit, politician, and political theorist. He served as United States Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush. In 2000, he co-founded K12, a for-profit online education corporation which is publicly traded.

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