The formal teaching methods that Chinese-American parents adopt during their children's infant years have been singled out as the main reason why they go on to outperform European-American children.
The finding has emerged from a four-year study of 40 Chinese-American children and 40 European-Americans. Researchers in Illinois tested the children's mathematical attainment and English vocabulary at the ages of 5, 7 and 9, and at each stage they asked parents questions about extra-curricular activities, pre-school experiences, time spent on homework and parental expectations.
They interviewed mothers and fathers - all the children were from two-parent homes - about how they encouraged reading and maths development and asked them to describe their child's typical day. The children's teachers were also asked to rate their performance in reading, science, mathematics, spelling, writing, social studies, art and physical education.
The researchers, Carol Huntsinger, Shari Larson and Dana Krieg, discovered that the Chinese-American children were already ahead in maths when they were tested at the age of five - the kindergarten year - in 1993. Further tests in 1995 and 1997 showed that they had maintained their lead.
At the ages of five and seven the Chinese-American children had a more limited vocabulary than the European-Americans but by the age of nine the Chinese had overtaken them in English too.
Teachers confirmed that the nine-year-old Chinese-Americans were ahead in reading, maths, spelling, writing and social studies. The only subject that European-American children were rated as more skilled at was gym.
There were also significant cultural differences in the nine-year-olds' use of time. The parents' questionnaires showed that Chinese-American children were awake longer each day and devoted more time to music practice, Chinese homework, weekend Chinese school, and music lessons. They also spent longer on their maths homework, although the time difference between the two groups was more marked at the age of seven.
European-Americans spent more time on sports practice and competitions and RE.
The researchers said that their statistical analysis of the data revealed that the approach to training and discipline that parents adopted at the age of five was the best predictor of maths performance at nine, regardless of ethnicity.
"Chinese-American parents taught their children in more formal ways and expected them to do much more homework," they told the AERA conference.
The researchers are not sure why the Chinese-Americans' vocabulary was superior by the age of nine but they hazard some guesses. "Several parents spontaneously mentioned they wanted their child to learn a specific quantity of new words per week. Other parents expected their children to look up any new words in a dictionary. None of the European-American parents mentioned vocabulary-building.
"Another contributing factor might be the greater sports involvement of European-American children and their parents. Greater sports involvement was associated with lower vocabulary scores, lower likelihood of reading in their free time, and fewer trips to the library."
Huntsinger, Larson and Krieg acknowledge that it might be dangerous to make generalisations on the basis of their study as their sample is small and confined to middle-class families. Nevertheless, they say that it provides some insight into the parental practices that can boost children's educational attainment and challenges the belief that parents should teach their children in informal ways.
"Ironically, the practices of the Chinese-American parents have been criticised as developmentally inappropriate while the practices of European-American parents were rated as developmentally appropriate by a group of well-educated early-childhood professionals," the researchers said. "We may need to rethink our notions of what is appropriate."
Contact: Carol S Huntsinger, College of Lake County, 19351 W Washington, Grayslake, IL 60030