A Talk with an Asian Dad

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Education Realist sat down with one of his SAT-prep students, Nick, and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman, for a little talk:

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”


“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests — which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year — he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60 — even 65 — then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”


  1. A Boy and His Dog says:

    This sort of thing poses a conundrum. Do you raise your children to compete with this Indian boy for a life as a soulless corporate automaton, plugged into political correctness and keep-up-with-the-joneses, or do you encourage them to do something more likely to increase their happiness and proliferation? With girls in particular it poses a problem: if your girls are highly educated office workers the possibility of children of their own goes down. Maybe it’s better to adopt a strategy from the “backward” cultures and encourage sons to do well in business, while encouraging daughters to skip education but marry well. But even with sons it’s easy to fall prey to the “we aren’t ready yet” curse of no-children.

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    Don’t worry about such students. Most fall short in late college and graduate school to the wave upon wave of Indians and Chinese coming in from abroad to compete. The boy being groomed by his dad probably is not as smart as his father and certainly is not as smart as the group coming in from abroad.

    The rare white IQ 130+ in the mix will do just fine against the coddled Asian American.

  3. Thanks for the link.

    I think you may have missed the point, commenters. The father is obsessive and driven by his son’s accomplishment, yes. But he was also open to the fact that being good at reading and expressing thoughts was also useful.

    This kid is quite bright, and not in the slog way. He asked me to help because he wanted to take more advanced verbal courses, and didn’t want to spend more time prepping on the SAT.

  4. Dan Kurt says:

    The point that I see is that the SATs since the 1970s have become easier and easier to game as the IQ parts have been trimmed out and the up and coming revision will further remove IQ from the scoring.

    Let me tell a little anecdote. At the High School where my son graduated the Valedictorian was a Chinese immigrant girl who had essentially straight As since the first grade. My son was in her class from kindergarten through 12th and our whole family knew her as she worked at her own family’s Chinese restaurant since she was quite young running the cash register. We still eat at the restaurant. Their soups are extraordinary.

    Both Eva (her name) and my son got into the same out of state university. She had SAT prep unlike my son who refused my offers to send him to a prep tutor. He also refused to take any AP courses given at the local college. Never-the-less both were accepted at that university. She started in pre-med and by the end of the year was in Business. My son who graduated with no honors or notice tested out of freshman English and standard Calculus and went instead into math major Calculus and upper level English. She graduated with a Business major and now is married. My son has a BS, a MS and a Ph.D. in Mech. Engineering and is actually a rocket scientist currently. All of the finagling came to naught as performance alone made the difference between success and failure. BTW, in the Ph.D. level my son was the only American (white or Asian) in a cohort group of seven. There were five from red China and one from Taiwan. He was the first to finish of the seven and the only one to not fail any part of the comprehensives.

    I asked him recently about test prep for the SATs and the GREs. He said that as far as he was concerned it is better to not prep because when one is in college and graduate school in engineering the courses are so hard that if you don’t have the ability you will fail anyway. Many who started with him in the Masters program were dropped. About 50%+ were lost as he started with 25 and 11 got their MS degree. All seven of his cohort for the Ph.D. eventually got their Doctorates but all of the Asians were mature men in their 30s when they started who had demonstrated their mettle before being sent to the USA.

  5. Bill says:

    “The rare white IQ 130+ in the mix will do just fine against the coddled Asian American.”
    — Dan

    My son’s current experience in college seems to bear this out.

    But this remark made me think hard about my own experience as a high school senior in the early 1970′s. I knew pretty much all of the top students in my very large, very competitive university town high school and they were pretty much all Caucasian.

    My son graduated from the same school about 40 years after I did, and the difference was striking. My son was also friends with most of the best science and math students in his high school as I was. But most of his friends are Asians.

    I appreciate your comments about your son’s experiences in college. My son also seems to understand that innate ability and eagerness to work very hard in the most challenging math and science classes will bring him the degrees and success he needs, not further test conditioning.

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