Tiger Students

Source: WSJ, Apr 2013

Here is the ethnic breakdown of acceptances for next fall’s Stuyvesant freshman class: 9 black students, 24 Latinos, 177 whites and 620 Asian-Americans.

The Stuyvesant story speaks to a larger matter: the national disparity in educational advancement according to race and ethnicity. Reading and vocabulary skills are cumulative, meaning that verbal skills are not based on what an eighth-grader can cram into his head in a few weeks before a test. They come from everything read and heard since infancy.

Yet some Asian children with high scores come from immigrant homes where English isn’t the first language. This raises the question of the importance of culture—and the strong emphasis on hard work and higher parental expectations at home that make it possible to thrive academically.

Several years ago, Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the teens who were National Spelling Bee finalists. She wanted to find out what they did to get there.

Many people might assume that the spelling whizzes have a genetic advantage, but Ms. Duckworth found a more important trait: tenacity. The finalists are willing to forgo the immediate gratification of watching TV or texting friends so they can spend hours and do the tedious and merciless grunt work. They write out thousands of flashcards with words and definitions and memorize them.

It is vital for America’s future that those Stuyvesant numbers even out. But that won’t happen simply by pouring more money into schools, hiring a thousand new teachers or offering Head Start to every 4-year-old from Maine to California. A better and much less expensive way may be for parents to look at what is going on in Asian-American families, or what went on in Dr. Carson’s home, and copy it.

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