Stereotypes Turn Up Pressure on Asian Students, Lower Their Own Expectations

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 23, 2017 3 min read
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Stereotyping Asian-American students as top-performers can change how they perceive support from parents, teachers, and friends and drag down their expectations for themselves, according to a new study from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“It’s about the pressure,” said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, an assistant professor of international education at Steinhardt. “When you have these very broad social stereotypes around academic success, and you hear it echoed in your close social circles ... it can be really damaging.”

Cherng and fellow NYU researcher Jia-Lin Liu looked at nationally representative data from more than 15,000 high school students, their parents, and their 10th grade teachers. The researchers analyzed academic and demographic information and school social groups, and also compared it to whether the students, as 12th graders, expected to complete a college degree.

Black, white, and Latino students, regardless of whether they or their parents were immigrants, were more likely to expect to finish college if they had a strong support network.

Asian-American students had the highest social support for academics from teachers, parents, and friends of any racial group. Teachers were nearly three times as likely to expect their Asian-American students to complete college as white students whose parents had been born in the United States.

And as of 2014, the most recent federal data, Asian-American students had on average the most-educated parents of any racial or ethnic group; about 68 percent of Asian parents have at least a bachelor’s degree and 8 percent have less than a high school degree; by contrast, 38 percent of all parents have at least a four-year degree, and 11 percent did not graduate high school.

But for second-generation Asian-American students, high social support had a down side: Only 74 percent of those with high social support expected to finish a degree, compared to 83 percent of students with lower levels of support.

So what’s going on?

Stereotypes about Asian students excelling, particularly in math or science, can mean parents and teachers overlook a student’s academic struggles or fail to recognize good—but not perfect—achievement.

“I’ve never heard a white kid say, ‘I’m pretty good for a white kid,’” said Cherng, who used to teach middle school, “But all the time, I’ve heard Asian students say, ‘Oh, I’m pretty smart, but among Asians I’m not that smart.’ It’s a racial stereotype, and that’s always in the back of their heads.”

Deconstructing a ‘Model Minority’

On average, Asian-American students do tend to lead students of other racial groups in academic areas, but federal data suggest that this can hide deep differences in resources and achievement among different groups.

For example, Asian and white students tie for the lowest poverty rates—steady at 12 percent—but some groups of students have much higher poverty rates:

The results don’t mean that teachers and parents should not support students’ academic goals, Cherng said.

But the findings suggest that adults need to help all students become aware of stereotypes, and help students learn to separate their own challenges and achievement from the social image of what is expected of them.

“One of the best ways of addressing this is talking about this,” he said. “If you say, you are really good at math, you should say in the next breath, here is the evidence, here’s how you did on this test.”

As more schools begin to have discussions with their students about how to identify and counter negative stereotypes, Cherg said they should also consider discussing the dangers of even “positive” stereotypes.

“That’s somehow empowering to know, that [the pressure] I feel is not my fault; it’s shaped by social forces, and it’s something I can shape now that I acknowledge it,” he said.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.