Heightened parental expectations might improve student achievement, at least in China

In this study, the authors examine the impact that being born in the Year of the Dragon—the luckiest and most desirable in the Chinese Zodiac—has on the academic achievement of Chinese youth.

Data for the study come from three sources: the 2010–13 waves of the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS); the China Education Panel Study (CEPS), which includes over 13,000 middle school students from 112 schools in twenty-eight districts, counties, and/or cities; and the Beijing College Students Panel Survey (BCSS), which includes about 5,000 undergraduates from fifteen universities in Beijing.

Based on their analysis of these data, the authors estimate that, relative to individuals born in other years, so-called “Dragons” score about 0.05 standard deviations higher on middle school Chinese and English exams and 0.1 standard deviations higher on China’s National College Entrance Examination, and are 5–10 percentage points more likely to have a college education.

Because parents of Dragons are no richer, better educated, or more likely to have white-collar jobs than other parents, the authors conclude that “the differential educational success of Dragon children is not related to family background.” Moreover, because the CEPS includes questions related to “dimensions of language, perceptions of figures and spaces, and calculations and logic,” the authors are also able to control for “cognitive ability” in their work with these data.

Perhaps more surprisingly, despite their lucky status, Dragons do not believe they are more able than other students or that they will have a more successful future. However, parents of Dragons do have substantially higher expectations when it comes to their children’s educational attainment and future success, and they invest more time and money in helping their children meet these expectations. For example, parents of Dragons are more likely to enroll them in kindergarten, more likely to initiate conversations with their teachers, and less likely to make them do household chores. Based on these patterns, the authors conclude that the superstitious beliefs associated with Dragon status create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Other than the possibility that Dragons really are lucky (which the authors inexplicably ignore) the biggest threat to the study’s validity is the possibility that parents of Dragons differ from other parents in unobservable but outcome-relevant ways. For example, they might be better planners or more excited about having kids. (The Year of the Dragon is helpfully preceded by the Year of the Rabbit, with the result that number of live births spikes noticeably in Dragon years.)

Ultimately, the authors can’t completely rule out this possibility. However, they do show that the “Dragon effect” on test scores disappears when they account for parental expectations. This strongly implies that higher expectations are the channel through which Dragons gain an advantage. But what’s not quite so clear (at least to this reviewer) is to what extent those higher expectations are truly a consequence of Dragon status.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that some or all of the “expectations gap” between Dragons and their less fortunate schoolmates is indeed attributable to superstition, meaning that parental expectations are mutable at some level. What then should policymakers and practitioners do to raise those expectations?

One obvious answer is to lie: “Jonny is one of the smartest kids in the class.” Another, equally obvious answer is to tell the truth: “If he applied himself, there’s no reason Jonny couldn’t be an A student.” But of course, it is ultimately up to parents to take to heart the central message: You too could be a mother—or father—of Dragons.

SOURCE: Nacu H. Mocan and Han Yu, “Can Superstition Create a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? School Outcomes of Dragon Children of China,” National Bureau of Economic Research (August 2017).

David Griffith
David Griffith is a Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.