By Amy Norton
MONDAY, May 5, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Asian-American students have a reputation as high achievers, and a new study suggests their success comes mainly from hard work rather than innate ability.
It's well known that compared with white students, Asian-American kids tend to get higher grades, do better on standardized tests and are more likely to go to college -- including elite universities.
"What we've lacked is an explanation," said Amy Hsin, the lead researcher on the new study and an assistant professor of sociology at Queens College, City University of New York.
In general, Hsin said, there have been three "competing theories" on why Asian-American students tend to excel.
One is that their families have higher incomes and are better educated, versus other minorities and whites. Another, Hsin said, is that Asian kids are "just smarter."
The third theory is that Asian Americans typically put more effort into their schoolwork. And based on the new study, that's the best explanation.
The results, reported Monday in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are based on data from two long-term studies of U.S. students. They included almost 1,000 Asian Americans, and over 4,000 whites.
Overall, Hsin's team found, Asian Americans got better grades -- an advantage that kept growing from elementary school to high school.
But when it came to tests of basic reading and math abilities, there was no clear difference between results from Asian-American and white students. Nor did parents' income and education explain the gap.
"We found that even newly arrived Asian immigrants with little formal education and low incomes have children who do better in school than their white [U.S.-born] peers," Hsin said.
Instead, she said, it seemed that hard work was the main factor.
The two surveys included teachers' ratings of students' attentiveness, motivation and work habits. And those ratings, Hsin's team found, correlated well with Asian-American students' higher grades.
An expert who reviewed the study said it was "very well done."
"It gives empirical evidence that some of the achievement gap can be explained by hard work," said Sumie Okazaki, a professor of applied psychology at New York University.
And why do Asian Americans tend to put more effort into school?
For one, the study found, they seem to have a stronger belief in the rewards of hard work: Asian Americans were more likely than their white classmates to believe a person can learn to be good at math -- and less likely to believe it's an inborn ability.
If that mindset is key, Okazaki noted, it can be fostered in all kids regardless of ethnicity. "There's nothing exclusively 'Asian' about thinking, 'I can be good at math,' " she said.
Besides that belief in effort, Hsin said the typical "optimism" of recent U.S. immigrants might play a role in Asian Americans' academic success. Much of the academic advantage is seen in Asian families who've arrived in the U.S. relatively recently. Once they've been here for a few generations, the academic edge over other ethnic groups wanes.
Hsin speculated that later-generation Asian Americans might be less optimistic about the "American dream."
But she also noted that recent immigrants from Asia actually benefit from some rich resources. When immigrant families move to ethnic neighborhoods in New York City, for example, they typically have access to community resources to help their kids do well in school -- like tutoring programs and "cram schools."
"There's a whole community support system," Hsin said.
That community aspect is important, she stressed. "This is not just a simple 'pick yourself up by the bootstraps' story," Hsin said. "Other immigrants want their children to succeed, too. But they may not have access to the same community resources."
Still, although Asian-American kids tend to do better academically, they fare worse in other areas -- namely emotional well-being. Hsin's team found that compared with their white peers, Asian-American students were less likely to say they felt good about themselves, and reported more conflicts with their parents.
"That's not surprising," Okazaki said. Past studies have found that Asian-American students report lower self-esteem and lesser well-being than whites.
But, Okazaki cautioned, it's not clear that pressure to excel at school is to blame. There is likely a complex mix of factors involved, she said.
Still, Hsin said, Asian-American kids' lower self-image could at least partly result from pressure to excel at school. "We're not saying Asian-American kids are depressed," she said. "But they may end up being less satisfied with what they do achieve."