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About Family Involvement Research Digests

Harvard Family Research Project's (HFRP) Family Involvement Research Digests summarize research written and published by non-HFRP authors and/or written by HFRP authors but published by organizations other than HFRP.  For more information on the research summarized in this digest, please contact the author at the address below. For help citing this article, click here.


It is argued that Asian immigrant parents assume a strong role in their children's education through encouraging high aspirations and promoting academic achievement (Kao, 1995; Zhou, 2000). However, little research has paid attention to how the children themselves situate the influence of the family in their schooling, and how it fits in with their own understandings of the social world in which they live. Drawing on small-scale surveys, interviews, and nonparticipant observations, I focused on the views and experiences of college students, specifically Chinese foreign-born children who arrived in the United States by the age of 12 (the 1.5 generation), and American-born children of Chinese immigrants (the second generation). The study asked about the students' experiences with K–12 schooling and college (Louie, 2004).

Research Background

The challenge for researchers studying Asian Americans and education starts with uncovering the lines of commonality and difference in a population that is diverse along the lines of ethnicity, socioeconomic, and generational status. In the aggregate, Asian Americans have a higher likelihood than other groups of entering and staying in school, have higher GPA and math SAT scores, surpass the national average in college graduation rates, and are more likely to pursue further education (Hsia, 1988; Sue & Okazaki, 1990; Espiritu, 1997; Kao & Tienda, 1998).

Asian parents of various ethnicities expect their children to go on to college and beyond, aspirations that are shared by their children and are higher than other groups (Kao & Tienda, 1998). At the same time, the various ethnic groups that make up the Asian-American population have distinct histories, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures, and fare differently in educational outcomes. In standardized tests and other measures of academic achievement, for instance, Asian Indians and Japanese students perform the best on average, followed by Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Southeast Asians, respectively (Siu, 1996; Espiritu, 1997). Moreover within these ethnic groups, there is often variation along the lines of nativity status, gender, and class (Takaki, 1989; Abelmann & Lie, 1995).

Researchers seeking to explain the sources of sameness and variation in Asian-American academic achievement have engaged in a debate about the relative importance of culture versus structure, as mediated by the immigrant family. For example, is it the values and beliefs of Asian immigrants, or is it their incorporation into the American opportunity structure that contributes to their children's educational success?

Research Methods

To address this question related to culture and class, I drew my sample from two very different 4-year institutions along the private/public and residential/commuter spectrum: Columbia University, an Ivy League school, and Hunter College of the City University of New York (CUNY), a public commuter school. The decision allowed me to tap into social class background, which is often correlated with the type of postsecondary institution attended. Thus, most of the parents of the Hunter students had a high school education or less, and two-thirds worked in the Chinese urban enclave economy, mainly in the restaurant business or the garment industry. The Columbia respondents tended to come from families in which one parent had at least a bachelor's degree, lived in the suburbs, and held a professional job, although a few also came from urban, working-class enclaves.

In 1998–1999, I conducted interviews with 68 Chinese-American students, the parents of six students, and the adult siblings of two students, to examine how respondents from diverse class backgrounds understood in retrospect the role of their families in their paths to college. Specifically, interviews with the students examined topics such as their perception of parental expectations for how well they did in school, how far they should go academically, and the types of fields of study they should pursue. Interviews with the parents examined their migration experiences, and why and how their children went to particular schools, and the expectations they had for their children's educational and occupational trajectories and long-term future.

I also conducted fieldwork at the colleges and in students' homes. The fieldwork at the colleges was conducted in classrooms, student group meetings, and other areas where students congregated in order to tap into an overall sense of the educational culture and how Chinese-American students related to it. Fieldwork conducted in the homes of several families was meant to tap into the home environment.

Research Findings

Three key themes emerged. First, the sociocultural contexts shaping parental expectations prove crucial to understanding the role of the immigrant family. These contexts fall along the lines of immigrant optimism and immigrant pessimism. The families come from a cultural tradition emphasizing education. However, this tradition interacts with the parents' perceptions of greater opportunities in the American education system as compared to countries of origin, and the compelling economic payoff to education in the United States. These perceptions shape immigrant optimism, namely, the parents' hope that their children will achieve mobility in the United States, an optimism found generally with immigrant parents across national origins (Kao & Tienda, 1995).

Another crucial condition is parents' perception of racial discrimination in the United States and its challenge for Asian children's chances for mobility. This perception influences immigrant pessimism, namely that immigrant parents see higher education as a necessary way for their children to offset potential discrimination. It is within this context of culture and incorporation into the opportunity structure that we can understand why parents stress education among their children.

Second, despite the similarity in parental expectations for children's education, there are clear class differences in the kinds of investments parents make in their children's schooling. Compared to their middle-class peers, working-class children tend to feel they are on their own in school. Due to their parents' lack of time, little English language facility, low levels of educational attainment, and lack of exposure to American schools, working-class children believe they must navigate their school lives without much help from parents. They feel they must rely on their own abilities with regard to homework, course selection, and the college application process.

Third, across class, the children experience a keen sense of reciprocal duty heightened by the immigrant experience and fear of failure. Perceiving their parents' migration in terms of the loss of language, culture, and status, the children feel an obligation to make up for their parents' sacrifices by doing well in school and thus, fulfilling at least one hope of their parents' journey to the United States. The fear of failure is particularly salient among working-class children as they navigate the educational system on their own with varying levels of success. When children do not meet their parents' expectations this can lead to emotional conflict between parent and child.

Implications for Practice

This study suggests that schools can support Chinese parent involvement by first recognizing the immigrant optimism held by Chinese parents, and using this as a bridge to communicate information about the school system. It is highly recommended that the information be communicated in their language. For example, because many parents have high educational expectations but come from contexts where interactive learning is not stressed, explaining the cultural differences in teaching and learning can help parents understand how their children are learning in U.S. schools.

Second, schools can also increase opportunities for parent involvement by being sensitive to the situations of Chinese working-class families. Most schools expect parents to attend conferences and participate in events. Given Chinese parents' labor-intensive work schedules it is useful to ask parents when are the best times to schedule these activities and also the best ways to communicate with them. In addition, teachers and school counselors should be sensitive to the reasons underlying the strong emphasis on education, and the potential for emotional conflicts between parent and child when the child is not doing well in school.

Community organizations dedicated to supporting children's education can play an important role in helping working-class Chinese immigrant children navigate school. Because of their lack of English language, limited education, and other factors, many working-class parents cannot help their children with academic work and with the college application process. Community volunteers and other organizations can work with schools to provide Chinese-American children with homework assistance, course selection, and college preparation. This assistance can minimize the isolation and pressures on Chinese-American students and meet the needs of working parents.


Abelmann, N., & Lie, J. (1995). Blue dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles riots. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Espiritu, Y. L. (1997). Asian American women and men. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Hsia, J. (1988). Asian Americans in higher education and at work. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kao, G. (1995). Asian Americans as model minorities? A look at their academic performance. American Journal of Education, 103, 121–159.

Kao, G., & Tienda, M. (1995). Optimism and achievement: The educational performance of immigrant youth. Social Science Quarterly, 76(1), 1–19.

Kao, G., & Tienda, M. (1998). Educational aspirations of minority youth. American Journal of Education, 106, 349–384.

Louie, V. (2004). Compelled to excel: Immigration, education and opportunity among Chinese Americans. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Siu, S. F. (1996). Asian American students at risk: A literature review (Report No. 8). Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC: Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk of Johns Hopkins University and Howard University.

Sue, S., & Okazaki, S. (1990). Asian-American educational achievements: A phenomenon in search of an explanation. American Psychologist, 45, 913–920.

Takaki, R. (1989). Strangers from a different shore: A history of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books.

Zhou, M. (2000). Social capital in Chinatown: The role of community-based organizations and families in the adaptation of the younger generation. In M. Zhou & J. Gatewood (Eds.), Contemporary Asian America: A multidisciplinary reader. New York: New York University Press.

Vivian Louie, Ph. D.
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Larsen Hall, Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138

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