Learning From Ophelia

By Shlomo Maital

  Columbia University Professor Jennifer Lee has written an insightful Op-Ed in today’s New York Times.  She reports on her research on Asian-American children in US schools.  Especially interesting is her story about  “Ophelia”.

     Ophelia (Vietnamese American) described herself as “not very intelligent”. She almost flunked second grade and had a straight C average through elementary and junior high school.  She failed an Advanced Placement exam.  But Ophelia’s teacher, and with her parents’ support, put her into Advanced Placement anyway. 

      Why?  Because as Asian-American, she was assumed to be highly motivated, driven,  with high potential.   Once enrolled in AP, Opelia reports, “something just clicked”.  She worked hard to prove she was indeed a good student.  And she graduated with a grade of 4.2 (4.0 is ‘perfect’).  She was accepted into a highly selective pharmacy program in college.

 Many parents are troubled by the poor schooling their kids get, both in the US and in my country, Israel.  And faced with a bureaucratic obsolete educational system, there is not much they can do. 

  But perhaps there is.  And it is simple.  Make our kids pseudo-Asian American.  Instill high expectations.  Convey that to their teachers.  Mostly to the kids.  Help them in every way to live up to that expectation. 

  Excess pressure?  Maybe.  I myself faced that growing up, as a child of immigrant parents.  In the end, it was a huge plus for me.  Jewish kids, I guess, get the same high expectation push from parents as Asian-American kids. 

 Sadly, Lee reports that “none of the white, Black or Hispanic adults we interviewed were treated similarly”.  And guess what.  This “Pygmalion” effect, as it is known, has been documented as early as 1968.  The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) showed that teacher expectations influence student performance. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively. Goes for parents, too.

   Parents, I believe, can imbue their kids with high expectations and strong self-esteem.  And convey it to their teachers.  One by one, perhaps, all our kids can become “Asian-American”? 

   The dinosaurs on the conservative US Supreme Court are about to shoot down affirmative action.  What to do?  Create your own affirmative action – act to motivate, to inspire.  It’s worth a try.  And by the way – not only parents can do this.  So can grandparents.  Quietly but persistently.  Give it a shot!

At MIT summer school, I taught highly motivated Vietnamese engineers. They overcame language obstacles to excel.  I was awe-struck by them.  Why not learn from our Asian friends?  To paraphrase a famous Law:   Kids’ performances expand or contract to meet the high (or low)  bars we set for them.