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Minorities, racism, and UMass’s choice

Consider two questions that have nothing to do with each other:

1. If 22 percent of the students at Quincy High School are Asian, why do Asians account for 94.4 percent of the math club?

2. If J. Keith Motley would have been the first black chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, why is the UMass board of trustees about to give that job to somebody else?

Each of those questions has been the subject of recent media attention.

On May 18, Michael Winerip devoted his ‘‘On Education’’ column in The New York Times to exploring the overwhelming Asian makeup of Quincy High’s math club. What is it about math, he wondered, that attracts so many Asian kids? His answer, in a nutshell: Most of the school’s Asians are recent immigrants who struggle to communicate in English.

‘‘When I was a freshman, half year in US, English is a big problem,’’ one student told him. ‘‘I just know, ‘Hello, how are you?’ History is a big problem. You don’t openly express yourself because you don’t know what to say and stuff. . . . You don’t have the basic English.’’

But math doesn’t pose that hurdle. In the words of Evelyn Ryan, the head of Quincy High’s math department, ‘‘Math is a universal language.’’ She rejects the notion that Asians have a natural aptitude for math. ‘‘She believes it’s partly cultural,’’ Winerip wrote, since ‘‘math and mathematicians are championed over there’’ — in Asia — ‘‘the way reading and writers are here.’’ Before Asians began immigrating in large numbers to Quincy in the 1980s, Quincy High had only 10 students studying calculus; today there are two calculus classes totaling 40 students, 75 percent of whom are Asian.

I agree: The secret to Asian dominance in the math club and calculus classes lies in Asian culture. But the critical cultural ingredient isn’t that mathematicians ‘‘are championed’’ in Asia. It’s that Asian parents make their kids do homework.

By virtually any measure, Asian Americans achieve spectacular academic success. They make up just 4 percent of the US population, but 17 percent of the incoming students at Harvard, 18 percent at Columbia, 25 percent at Stanford, and 27 percent at MIT. Fewer than 1 New York City student in 10 is Asian, yet Asians fill half the seats in the city’s elite public schools, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. One-fifth of US medical students are Asian, as are 10 to 20 percent of the students attending Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other leading law schools. Asian students score in the highest bracket on the SAT — both verbal and math — at far higher proportions than their share of the public. Likewise the specialized SAT II subject tests, in which Asians amass triple their proportional share of top scores in writing and history, five times their share in biology, and eight times their share in math, chemistry, and physics.   Continued...

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