To the Editor:
Amid the national zeal for turning to Asian and Asian-American students as inspirational models, Deanna Kuhn’s March 8, 2006, Commentary (“Does the Asian Success Formula Have a Downside?”) provides a refreshing perspective. She argues convincingly that there may be “serious downside[s]” to the Asian success formula.
One piece of evidence Ms. Kuhn uses to support her claim is the following survey item: “Many social issues, like the death penalty, gun control, or medical care, are pretty much matters of personal opinion, and there is no basis for saying that one person’s opinion is any better than another’s. So there’s not much point in people having discussions about these kinds of issues. Do you strongly agree, sort of agree, or disagree? If disagree, what do you think?”
Ms. Kuhn writes that a majority of non-Asian participants disagreed with this item, but that only a minority of Asian participants disagreed. She attributes this to Asians’ “distaste for disagreement,” a finding she cites as a downside of the Asian success formula.
The irony of such a survey-item design is that, if the researchers’ distaste-for-disagreement hypothesis is correct, that the Asian tradition values “agreement and harmony,” then shouldn’t Asian respondents be expected to agree with the statement simply to maintain this harmony, even if they didn’t understand the question or agree with the statement? In other words, isn’t it possible that the fact that only a minority of Asian participants disagreed with this statement was a finding confounded by their hesitance to disrupt the harmony and their eagerness to show their agreement?
If all Ms. Kuhn’s survey items were designed like this one, cumulative methodological confounding may turn the statistically significant differences in those “downside” items to statistically nonsignificant.
So, until this methodological concern is properly addressed, we probably should digest Ms. Kuhn’s essay with a grain of salt.
A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Asian Downside’ Study: Take With a Grain of Salt