Schools a magnet for Asian immigrants
by Jennifer Deitz-Berry
A certain story passed down among generations of families in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China illustrates the importance Asian culture places in education. In the legend, a mother moves with her child not once, not twice, but three times as she seeks out the best environment for her son.
This appreciation of education is a major factor in the growth of Palo Alto's Asian community, given the city's reputation as a top school district.
Emily Wong, a mother-of-two, was born in Taiwan, but attended middle school up through graduate school in the U.S. She moved to the Bay Area for work, and married her husband who was earning his PhD at Stanford. When their daughter was born, the family gave up their home in Mountain View to relocate in Palo Alto.
But even in Palo Alto, Wong wasn't content to send her children to just any school. When it was time to enroll her daughter, she asked other parents for recommendations. They pointed her to the "choice" programs at Hoover and Ohlone.
Hoover is known for its structured curriculum and strict rules. The school's standardized test scores are among the highest in the district and students are generally assigned more homework than at other schools. The curriculum is what's known as "back-to-basics," focusing on mastery of basic skills as a stepping-stone toward more conceptual understanding. Students are drilled in calculations and spelling, and memorize key dates and events in history.
Only certified teachers can work with students -- no aides or parents allowed. Parents can't sit in on their children's classes to observe their progress. Instead, teachers send home weekly reports.
Because admission to both of the alternative schools used to be on a first-come, first-serve basis, friends advised Wong to sign her daughter up for both programs. (The district has since switched to a lottery system.) Her daughter was accepted to both programs, but Wong decided Ohlone would be the best match.
Even so, Wong was torn when it came time to choose a school for her son. He had a free pass into Ohlone because his sister attended, but he also made the lottery for Hoover. "I lost a lot of sleep over that decision," Wong said. Ultimately, she decided her son needed the structure and discipline Hoover offered.
Many Asian parents choose Hoover over other elementary schools in the district because it bears a greater similarity to schools in their home countries.
"In Asia, families and schools are very structured, disciplined, highly academic and students are very respectful to their teachers," said Nancy Wong, whose son recently completed fourth grade at Hoover.
At most schools in Palo Alto, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the students are Asian. Last year at Hoover, the district's ethnic report showed 46 percent of the students were of Asian descent.
Nancy Wong, Emily Wong and Julia Yu -- another Hoover parent -- all say that although Hoover is a very good school by American standards, they still believe a few lessons can be learned by seeing how children are educated in Asian countries.
The rigid structure of the school system in Asia may not be as effective as American schools at fostering free-thinkers or artists. "We are not as creative, maybe as a whole, as a nation," says Julia Yu. "But our basic standards are very high."
Still, a balance should be struck between the two systems, all three women say. Americans should take note that Asian classrooms appear to be more successful helping students excel in math and science-based fields like engineering and computer programming.
As proof, they point out how desperately high-tech companies recruited Asian employees -- many of whom were educated in their native countries. All three wives and their husbands now work in finance, high-tech or engineering fields.
Yu also expressed concern that Palo Alto's curriculum may be watered down by the district's effort to improve the performance of all students, so that 90 percent perform above average. Yu and other parents worry such improvement may come at the expense of providing enrichment for students already performing at the highest level.
"I think the most successful system is for everyone to stretch," she said.
But asking teachers of large and diverse classrooms to push every student to the limit may be expecting too much. In Palo Alto, the practice of "laning" (grouping students in classrooms by their ability) is on the decline. The goal, instead, is to mix students of all abilities into each classroom, and encourage teachers to vary instruction to reach students of different learning styles and abilities.
Some districts offer GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) programs in which students are pulled out of class to work on more challenging projects. In Palo Alto schools, GATE students are taught within regular classrooms. A part-time GATE advisor circulates between elementary schools, suggesting enrichment activities and lessons teachers can offer their GATE students.
Although the Asian parents interviewed said they understood the problems inherent in "laning" -- namely the concern that children in lesser-performing groups could suffer from low self-esteem and be less motivated to try in school -- they consider the notion of schools spending time on students' self-images uniquely American.
"From an Asian perspective, we feel that the confidence comes from what you know and knowing it well," Emily Wong said.
They also worry that increased teacher turnover will compromise their children's opportunity to learn. When the three women attended school in China and Taiwan, all schools at each grade level used the same textbook and curriculum, so the quality of teachers was less important. Here, standards are based on what a child should know, not how they should learn it. Few textbooks are used and teachers have more latitude in devising learning plans, so curriculum can very widely from school to school.
So although an experienced, well-prepared teacher may be able to reach students across a wider spectrum, newer teachers are likely have more trouble -- particularly in the larger classes in the middle grades, which could have up to 29 students.
"So much depends on if they have a good teacher," said Nancy Wong. "If the teacher is inexperienced, this whole year could be lost."
This is what Wong feels happened to her son last year in fourth grade. Wong was dissatisfied with the teacher's expectations, and throughout the year her son had less homework and writing assignments than seemed appropriate, she said.
Finding out that both of the fifth grade classes at Hoover would be taught by new teachers, made Wong uneasy. "I don't want to take the chance...that my son will be unhappy for another year," she said.
Instead, Wong enrolled her son in the nearby Challenger private school, where students must meet certain academic standards to even be admitted. She is glad he will be among peers who are driven to succeed in school, but also worries the school may put so much emphasis on academics, there won't be enough time for play.
Even after they've gone to the effort to find the best school they can for their child, many Asian parents continue to look outside of the school system for academic enrichment programs. All three women send their children to after-school programs like Kumon or Score, which offer more challenging work in math and reading.
"I know I can't totally depend on the system or the school," said Nancy Wong. "It's more how I help my child and develop their potential."