Culture, Family And Chinese And Korean American Student Achievement: An Examination Of Student Factors That Affect Student Outcomes
Richard J. Braxton
This study determined that there is a distinct and intimate relationship between Asian American culture, family and student achievement. The purpose of this study was to describe how culture and family impact Asian American student achievement using a qualitative method of inquiry resulting in a single case study. Results of this study suggest that saving family “face”, home study environment, and parental encouragement affects Asian American student achievement. This study allowed the participants to reconstruct their educational, family and school experiences, and to elaborate on the meanings they assigned to those experiences. The narrative voices of participants are used to explain “how” culture and family influenced their achievement. Data collected was instrumental in assessing and evaluating their experiences. This case study was designed to help college admissions officers and academic affairs personnel better understand alternatives ways of serving diverse populations.
When looking at the nationwide college and university enrollment figures one might walk away with the impression that minority participation in higher education is on the rise. That is only a half truth. Indeed the total numbers have increased over the past twenty years, but the actual percentage rate of minority enrollment and participation has declined in recent years. The enrollment and participation rates of African American, Hispanic, and Native American continues to decline while their high school graduation rates continues to increase.
Bennett (1994) contends that with the exception of Asian Americans, minority participation rates continues to decline, particularly among males. Many scholars believe that poverty and poor academic preparation are the root causes of the decline in minority enrollment and participation. According to Bennett (1994, p. 664), “the relationship between socioeconomic level and educational attainment is well documented, and financial concerns explain why some minorities and poor Whites drop out of high school or enter the workforce rather than college after completing high school.” However, Bennett fails to explain why some groups in particular, Asian Americans, are not experiencing the same rates of decline as their minority counterparts.
One explanation for this soar in enrollment is immigration. Asian American immigration increased drastically in the past twenty years. Another plausible explanation may be due to culture and family influence. Does culture and family influence student achievement? Why are Asian Americans experiencing more academic success than other minorities?
The purpose of this study was to understand how culture and family affect Asian American college-going student achievement. This study was in the qualitative tradition which led to a single case study. This study was based on a series of semi-structured interviews which detailed the educational experiences of three Chinese American students and one Korean American student attendees from a single northwest university. The number of participants used was small given the time frame in which the study was conducted. This study attempted to explain “why” and Asian American college-going students are academically successful. The results suggest that culture and family exert considerable influence on college-going Asian American student achievement.
Research on Culture, Family, and Student Achievement
There is a large body of literature on cultural capital and student achievement. Cultural capital is a “tool kit” consisting of certain knowledge, skills, and styles and is transmitted from parents to their children (Farkas, 1996). Farkas (1996) contends that family is the primary vehicle of cultural transmission. Instead of examining culture as some abstract element, Farkas argues that the influence of culture is passed from parent to child through certain skills, habits, and styles that increases their child’s cognitive abilities. Does family affect student achievement?
Most of the empirical evidence on family and student achievement are quantitative studies which examine how parents’ occupation and the families socioeconomic status affect student achievement. Rumberger, Ghatak, Poulus, and Dornbusch (1990) identified four ways that family influence students’ performance in school: First, parents of high socioeconomic status background are more likely than parents of low socioeconomic backgrounds to be involved in their children’s education. Second, academic achievement is improved when parents spend more time with their children in pursuit of activities that help cognitive development or the formation of human capital. Third, parents also influence academic achievement by transmitting the appropriate values, aspirations, and motives needed to succeed in school. Finally, parents who communicate with their children and promote responsible behavior in their children also influence student achievement.
Bowen (1978) supports Rumberger, Ghatak, Poulus, and Dornbusch (1990), he states, “an abundance of evidence based on major national studies with huge samples indicates a very strong and positive relationship between the education of parents and the measured intelligence, academic achievement, and extracurricular participation of children in school or college” (Bowen, 1978, p. 197). Bowen believes that college educated parents affect their children’s attitudes, values, and decisions about school and college. Lockheed, Fuller and Nyirango (1989) suggest that there is strong evidence that students’ family background contributes significantly to both educational attainment and achievement in developing counties.
This study examined the effect culture and family have on college-going Asian American students attending a Research l university in the pacific northwest. Three of the participants are Chinese American and one Korean American. All of the participants are college-going sophomores and attend the same northwest research university. The participants were selected by word of mouth. Participants were selected on the following basis: if they were currently enrolled students, their interest in the study, and if they are Asian American. All of the participants volunteered to be a part of this study. Each interview was guided by the researcher and proceeded with a protocol.
The researcher used the single case study approach to explain this phenomenon. The rationale for using the single case approach was to test a well-formulated theory (Yin, 1994). In addition, the single case study approach helped the researcher determine whether the theory’s propositions are correct or whether some alternative set of explanations might better explain the phenomenon being investigated (Yin, 1994). This study allowed the participants to reconstruct their educational, family and school experiences, and to elaborate on the meanings they assigned to those experiences. Data collected was instrumental in assessing and evaluating their experiences.
Data for this consisted of open-ended, semi-structured interviews, and field notes from interaction with the participants. The researcher conducted four formal interviews, one for each student. Each interview was conducted on the college campus at the participants’ request. Information about the participants’ relationship with parents and their educational experiences was gathered. Each interview was tape recorded, coded for emerging themes, and transcribed by the researcher.
Qualitative analysis found that culture does affect Chinese American students’ achievement in the case under study. Through the use of semi-structured interviews the researcher found that parents transmitted cultural skills, values, and styles to their children and influenced their decision to do well in high school and college.
This study found that parents talked extensively to their children about the importance of culture, values, and how to function in society. Chinese American parents (according to participants) expected their children to display certain cultural values such as hard work, maintaining high standards, and saving “face”. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Mike (pseudonym), a nineteen year-old Chinese American male student:
“Particularly, he (father) wants us to succeed. It’s like, pretty much a
competition between our family and our cousins. Pretty much, a competition.
Oh, my son did this, my daughter did this, and you know, our parents want
to say, oh my son is in medical school right now, my youngest son is in
college right now doing pretty good. The competition I was saying, in
Chinese family tradition like, you know, your son, you see how they compare
our sons, so it’s like they comparing between families. It’s more like
pride and prestige. Who’s better? It’s like confused, not confused, a pride
The importance of family is very clear in this study. Mike highlights the way his parents (especially his father) encouraged success. One of the more visible things that came to light during the interview was the focus of family and the role of family. Other Chinese American students expressed similar comments.
Mark (pseudonym), a nineteen year-old Chinese American explained that he also felt that his parents stressed the importance of culture when describing how “family face” influences his educational choices:
“Family face, one of the worst face is just the family honor and making
sure your family looks good. That is a big part of Chinese culture, your
identity and your family. Let’s say, if I went to a small unknown community
college, my father would lose face, with his friends, relatives, and my mom
also. And also, they look at how well your kids do is how well of a job
your parents did. So, if your son or daughter goes to Harvard, wow, you
must have awesome parents. Even though they have nothing to do with it or
maybe they did? But obviously, you know, but if your son or daughter go to
some unknown community college your parents, wow, your parents must have
failed and so that is another reason your parents would lose face, with
their friends. And also, they must have dumb kids or something (laughter)
and lose face.”
Failure to perform well in school has consequences that affects both the family and Mark. His continued persistence and his push to excel is directly related to his parents’ influence and expectations about school.
Mark’s parents talked a lot about education: “Well, my parents always say, education is important. Degrees are important. You are not going to be able to get anywhere without it. People are going to look down on you without it, you wont’s get a good job. You’ll have a hard life, you know, don’t waste your life. You need to get your degree and education.” Mark developed good study habits to maintain his high grades. Like most Chinese American students in this study, Clay (pseudonym), a nineteen year old Chinese American parents’ talked a lot about education and earning a college degree. Clay remembers his parents talking about the importance if getting a good education while he was in elementary school. “I mean they would tell me I should try to do the best I can.” His parents moved to a new school district to ensure Clay would receive a good education.
Mike, Mark and Clay’s experiences exemplify Chinese American students whose families stress the importance of culture and achievement. The students cultural knowledge and values often reflect their parents beliefs. Parents created a home environment that was supportive.
Home Study Environment
Mark’s parents provided him with a study environment. He had his own study desk in his room and did most of his studying there. According to Mark, his father really stressed the importance of studying and preparing for the future. Mark spent approximately three hours a night studying during high school. Like Mark, Brad (pseudonym), a Korean American nineteen year old parents also created a home environment that was conducive to studying. Brad’s parents provided a study desk, computer, and educational materials to aid Brad in his studies. Brad’s parents were very influential in his education. All of the students’ parents created a home environment that rewarded academic excellence through cultural affiliations.
Family Encouragement and Student Achievement
Family encouragement and expectations influenced the achievement of Chinese and Korean American students in this study. According to the participants, both parents spent a great deal of time communicating with their children the importance of education. One student the researcher spoke to, Brad, shared how important education was to his father:
“I never thought of doing anything else besides going to college. College
is the only option (laughter) and I think that has a lot to do with my
parents pushing me and supporting me, you know … My dad said, you need to
get a degree to get a professional job. Professional job, either a doctor
or engineer (pause) basically, or a lawyer.”
Other students expressed similar comments. Mike explained: “Well, my parents always say, education is important. Degrees are important. You are not going to be able to get anywhere without it. People are going to look down on you without it, you won’t get a good job. You’ll have a hard life, you know, don’t waste your life. You need to get your degree and education.” Parental influence also came in the form of encouragement.
Mike and Mark revealed how their parents encouraged them to do well in school. According to Mike, “The say, just do your work, you will succeed. I don’t want you to grow up and be a bum or something like that. They just want you to work hard. I guess, they just want to be proud of you.” Mark explains:
“They restrict most of his time to studying and stress the importance of
earning good grades. “Yea, at least a three point five. You know, they,
they will place either rewards or punishments, positive or negative
reinforcement. Right now, I’m living in an apartment and they’re basically
paying for it, my living expenses there, and I have to maintain at least a
three point five average each quarter to stay there. So far I have!”
Like Mike and Mark, Clay states, “My parents talked a lot about education and earning a college degree. Clay remembers his parents talking about the importance if getting a good education while he was in elementary school.
These statements appears to support research on families and student achievement. “Families continue to influence students’ achievement by providing their children with material and nonmaterial support for learning activities, by raising their children’s educational expectations, and by reinforcing their children’s motivation and effort.” (Lockheed, Fuller, and Nyirongo, 1989, p. 245).
These findings suggest that researchers should broaden their view when examining Chinese and Korean American student achievement. The evidence shows that cultural styles, home environment, and parental influence help explain student achievement. The researcher found that student achievement was influenced by culture and family.
The analysis of cultural influences identified that “family face” was an important cultural style for Chinese American students. “Family face” was viewed as one of the primacy influences of student achievement. All of the Chinese American participants indicated that success, prestige, and pride make up “family face” and is a vital part of Chinese American culture.
“Family face” was transmitted from the parents to their children. Parents often stressed the importance of “saving face”. Doing well in school helps the students save “family face”. Participants reported that parents expected them to do well in school, work hard, and to hold a professional job upon graduating from college.
Hard work and discipline were found to be crucial to student achievement. Both Chinese and Korean American students talked about their work ethic. These students may have received better course grades because of their attitude towards education and parents’ expectations. Hard work and discipline were part of their cultural “tool kit”.
This analysis revealed that there is very little distinction between culture and parental influence. Parents’ talked extensively to their children about doing well in school and stressed that a good education leads to a good professional career. Parents’ modeled this behavior for their children by remaining involved in their child’s education.
Parents were involved in their children’s education in three ways: First, parents created a home environment that was conducive to studying. All of the participants mentioned that they had a quite study area, educational resources, and received academic assistance from either their parents or older siblings. Second, parents communicated the importance of getting an education. All of the participants stated that their parents talked about education in elementary school and continued to discuss the topic while enrolled in high school. The participants also stated that they received a lot of encouragement from their parents. Third, parents were involved in school. According to the participants, parents often attended parent-teacher meetings, open-house, and monitored their academic progress. This analysis is consistent with the research on culture, family, and student achievement.
Recent research (Henderson and Berla, 1995) has suggested that the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement is the extent to which family is able to create a home environment that encourages learning, express high, academic and career expectations, and become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community. Children of involved parents perform better in school. Family appears to be an important component in the transmission of cultural capital, as a result, ladins to better school performance.
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RICHARD J. BRAXTON, M.ED., M.S., M.P.A. Doctorate Student, Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies University of Washington, Seattle
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