Jewish World Review July 26, 2004 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5764

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

Importing smart kids; why Los Pobrecitos stay poor; academics only; by the shining big sea waters | Our smartest students come from immigrant families, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The children of immigrants are becoming the top math and science students in the United States, dominating academic competitions and representing the strongest hope the nation has of keeping an edge in high-tech and biomedical fields, according to a study released Monday.

According to the National Foundation for American Policy, which backs employment-related visas, 60 percent of the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search, 65 percent of the U.S. Math Olympiad's top scorers and 46 percent of U.S. Physics Team members are the children of immigrants.

"Seven of the top 10 award winners at the 2004 Intel Science Talent Search were immigrants or their children. In 2003, three of the top four awardees were foreign-born."

These young brains are not the children of the huddled masses. Typically, their parents are well-educated engineers and scientists.

They pass on superior genes and raise their children to value education and hard work.

Every year, the San Jose Mercury News runs photos and a profile of the valedictorians of local high schools. I'd guess the majority come from immigrant families, mostly Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Iranian and Russian. On a recent "best and brightest" page, the names are: Hsu, Bhople, May, Lin, Lai, Tran, Allen and Doan.

Maybe not representative. Let's try another one: Slagle, Lee, Zhang, Gottipatti, Harper, Avila, Claus, Dao, Jebens, Koval, Johnson, Kapulkin, Sato, Jhatakia, Decena, Ashe, Tran, Nguyen, Pham, Dick. Two of the non-Asians appear to be from Russian immigrant families.

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Why Los Pobrecitos Stay Poor

The pobrecitos phenomenon dooms low-income Hispanic students to school failure, writes Tina Griego in the Rocky Mountain News.

Pobrecito means "poor thing." And the phenomenon, explains Stephanie Robinson, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit, goes something like this:

A student comes into the school. He is poor, a minority, his family struggles. Maybe the teacher feels sorry for him. This is human. Maybe he feels sorry for himself. Expectations are not high. (If the student happens to be a she, maybe mom and dad are telling her she doesn't need more education, a husband and children await.) He is given low-level assignments. He is tested. He tests below grade-level. He is given more below-grade-level work. He believes or is led to believe he is doing what he can—he is, in fact, incapable of doing better. He never progresses. A cycle begins.

Low expectations lead to lower achievement, Robinson says. “You can't learn what you are not given to learn."

Low expectations often start at home. I once interviewed a Mexican-American father who told me his three sons had "done well in high school," though none had graduated. I asked what subjects they'd done well in. He said "basketball."

Academics Only

To balance the budget, a Massachusetts superintendent  cut all non-academic activities . Saugus schools will offer no sports teams, cheerleading, bands, clubs, student council, nada. The public is howling. Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wonders if a town's quality of life requires tax-funded extracurriculars.

One news story quoted a Saugus High senior who plays on the soccer and lacrosse teams. "If there is nothing to do after school," he said, "I'll probably just go home and do homework."

At the risk of uttering heresy, I can't help wondering: Would that be so terrible? . . . Whatever the merits of team sports or cheerleading, they are not essential to a high school education. Math and English are. Yet how many American communities muster even a fraction of the fervor for math and English instruction that they lavish on their high school sports programs?

While Saugus High boasts a championship hockey team, 47 percent of its 10th-graders performed at the two lowest levels — "needs improvement" or "failing" — on last year's statewide English exam. On the math exam, it was 56 percent. How often do parents and students ever take to the streets to protest academic mediocrity? Saugus spends $6,700 per student. Plenty of California schools manage to offer sports and marching band — but not small classes — on that kind of budget.

By the Shining Big Sea Waters

In the new City Journal, Michael Knox Beran defends teaching children to memorize poetry . In the 1920s, the New York City public schools required teachers to have students memorize poetry and speeches.

Poems "for reading and memorization" by first-graders include those of Robert Louis Stevenson ("Rain" and "The Land of Nod"), A. A. Milne ("Hoppity"), Christina Rossetti ("Four Pets"), and Charles Kingsley ("The Lost Doll").

Second-graders grappled with poems by Tennyson ("The Bee and the Flower"), Sara Coleridge ("The Garden Year"), and Lewis Carroll ("The Melancholy Pig").

In third grade came Blake's "The Shepherd" and Longfellow's "Hiawatha," while fourth grade brought Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Kipling. In the grades that followed, students read and recited poems by Arnold, Browning, Burns, Cowper, Emerson, Keats, Macaulay, Poe, Scott, Shakespeare, Southey, Whitman and Wordsworth.

Eighth-graders tackled Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.

The great wave of immigrants, like my grandfather, learned the rhythm and rhyme of the English language. They learned syntax and vocabulary.

From The Cat in the Hat on up, verse teaches children something about the patterns and relationships that bind together the words of which it is composed. Poetry sets up an abstract system of order and harmony; the rhythm and the rhyme scheme are logical structures that a child can comprehend even before he understands the words themselves, just as he can grasp the rhythmic and harmonic relations of a piece of music.

What the child discovers, in other words, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but important to cognitive development... And of course, memorization is a kind of exercise that strengthens the powers of the mind, just as physical exercise strengthens those of the body.

Memorizing poetry had gone out when I was in school, though we did have to memorize the preamble to the Constitution to get out of eighth grade. I memorized anyhow for the joy of the language. If you know it, you own it.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.


© 2004, Joanne Jacobs