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Asian-American students of all ages—especially those from the East Asian countries of China, Japan, and Korea—outperform their peers on standardized tests generally, and in math by wide margins. Researchers have come to call this the "Asian effect."
Most studies of the Asian effect have focused on children of at least elementary school age—but a 2008 study showed Asian-American children already outperforming their peers in math and literacy tests at age four.
Ohio State University sociologist Yongmin Sun wondered whether the effect existed even earlier. Sun compared results of cognitive tests of children of various racial and ethnic groups at ages nine months, two years, and four years, using data from a sample of 7,800 children born in 2001. The results of his study, published in the fall issue of Sociological Perspectives, are intriguing, and important beyond what they say about Asian-Americans.
At nine months, the East Asian-American children scored lowest among the racial/ethnic groups, although only European-American children outperformed them by a statistically significant margin. (The nine-month-olds were given tasks such as putting blocks into a cup, ringing a bell, and playing peek-a-boo.)
By age two, however, the East Asian-American children were performing as well on cognitive tests as their European-American counterparts, and better than all other racial/ethnic groups. By age four, the East Asian children were outperforming children in all other groups, and the gap was "fairly large."
The results at nine months cast doubt on the idea that the Asian effect is due to genetics, Sun says, though they don't completely refute a genetic hypothesis because some traits—height, for example—don't manifest themselves until later in life.
Sun notes that previous studies have attributed the Asian effect to the financial resources of Asian-American families, and the emphasis they place on education—a value "embedded in and implied by the doctrine of Confucius, which still remains influential in East Asian cultures." Perhaps East Asian-American children don't reap these advantages in infancy, when language skills aren't yet far along, Sun writes. As children begin to develop language skills in their second year, they "start to understand and be influenced by cultural values explicitly taught by parents and subtly embedded in parenting practices." They also are old enough as toddlers to benefit from their parents' tutoring, he says, and from the educational toys, books, private classes, and educational software their parents can provide.
East Asian-American children have important advantages beyond their parents' wealth and education, Sun notes: compared with other children, they're born prematurely less often, are generally healthier at birth, are less likely to be born into single-parent households, and have fewer siblings—all factors linked to better cognitive development. The inferior health of African-American and Hispanic-American children in his study was partly responsible for their lower cognitive scores. This suggests that more government money be spent on infants and on pregnant women in these minority communities to reduce their health problems, Sun says.
African-American, Hispanic-American, and American Indian parents also scored low in parent-child communication—they told stories, read books, and sang to their children less often than other parents. Sun believes minority parents need to be taught the key role such communication plays in cognitive development.
Sun notes that the math performance gap between African-American and East Asian-American four-year-olds in his study was almost as large as it is in eighth grade, according to other studies. Most of the East Asian advantage in math, in other words, has already developed "at least one year before our school systems even get a chance to address these racial gaps," he writes. "This finding sends a strong message to parents, educators, and policy makers alike: The effort to equalize racial inequality in educational outcomes needs to start earlier, probably in infancy."