Asian-Americans are winning many of America's educational prizes. They are now gaining nearly 40 per cent of undergraduate places at prestigious colleges such as Berkeley and are taking up high-ranking positions in computer science, medicine and bio-technology.
But there is one profession that they have little interest inIteaching. At present, only 2 per cent of US school teachers are Asian-Americans and there are few Asian faces to be seen in the country's teacher training institutions.
In the past, researchers have reported that Asian parents discouraged their children from going into teaching because it was not a high-status profession and was relatively lowly-paid.
But a new research study led by Dr June Gordon of the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that the reasons are more complex and contradictory than many people had thought.
Interviews with 32 Chinese-Americans confirmed that low pay was indeed an important deterrent. However, the majority said that they would not consider a teaching career even if the pay were doubled.
More than half also said that their parents expected them to enter professions that would enhance the status of their family. "I know that it is a stereotype, but you are pushed in the direction of the professions of high status and money, like medicine and law," one Chinese-American said.
But, paradoxically, many of the interviewees did not feel that they were good enough to become teachers. "If there are 10 qualities that a teacher needs and Chinese people do not meet all 10 , they will consider themselves not qualified," another person said.
Most of the respondents, who were interviewed by four Chinese-American students, saw teaching as a career with overwhelming responsibility. Several said: "I don't want to be responsible for other people's children."
The few respondents considering a "helping" profession as a future career claimed that they could envisage becoming a counsellor or social worker but not a teacher.
The researchers also found that language was an obstacle - many of the respondents believed that their relatively poor grasp of English or their accent made them ineligible for teaching. Others felt that they lacked the strong interpersonal communications skills that teachers needed.
* Contact: Dr June Gordon, 211 Crown College, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA 95064 e-mail jagordon@cats. ucsc.edu Dr Gordon said: "It was interesting that in talking to Chinese-American respondents as well as the student researchers, they did not seem to see themselves as part of the diversity equation and used neither "minority" nor "people of colour" to refer to themselves.
They were also concerned that they would not understand their students' backgrounds and would be unable to teach them in a way compatible with "their culture". They also admitted that, due to limited exposure to Latinos and blacks, they would enter the classroom with a high level of prejudice.
"While some might say that this attitude is racist, the hesitation (to work with children of a different race) seemed to have more to do with a feeling of personal inadequacy or being out of one's comfort zone than harbouring racist intentions."
"Few Asians challenge the stereotype of being quiet with an accent," one said.
But others questioned whether it was possible to generalise about "Asians" and dismissed the suggestion that Asian children might gain from being taught by an Asian teacher. "What could a Cambodian refugee possibly have in common with a third-generation Japanese?" one young man asked.