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School's out this week across Toronto, and, as usual, the top-achieving students are no surprise. For years, their ranks have been dominated by Asian kids, especially Chinese, increasingly South Asian, with a sprinkling of Eastern Europeans. For all the hardships faced by new immigrants to Canada, many of their kids are the brightest of the bright. They run rings around the Canadian-born kids. Across the city, immigrant and first-generation students make up a disproportionate share of high-school valedictorians. And they also make up a disproportionate share of dropouts.

Toronto's public school system is a rich laboratory for sociologists. Its 280,000 students come from almost every nation on the planet. Forty-three per cent of the secondary-school students were born outside Canada, and 49 per cent have a mother tongue other than English. A fifth of them arrived in the past five years. But it turns out that how they do in school has far more to do with where they're from than how long they've been here.

In an act of commendable bravery, the Toronto District School Board has been gathering statistics on drop-out rates by ethnicity. It found that the kids most likely to finish school are the Romanians. They have the lowest drop-out rate of all (10.8 per cent), followed closely by the Chinese (12.0), Gujaratis (14.3), Bengalis (16.7) and Tamils (16.9). The most likely to drop out are the Portuguese (42.5 per cent), English-speakers from the Caribbean (40 per cent), Hispanics from Central and South America (39.1 per cent), and Somalis (36.7). Canadian-born kids -- barely still in the majority, -- are in the middle of the pack (22.9).

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As you'd expect, students from the very poorest neighbourhoods (33 per cent) are far less likely to finish school than those from the very richest ones (11 per cent). Still, the differences in achievement among ethnic groups are even more striking. And they closely mirror patterns of achievement in the United States. In their widely cited book Beyond the Classroom, Laurence Steinberg and his co-authors write: "Of all the demographic factors we studied in relation to school performance, ethnicity was the most important . . . . In terms of school achievement, it is more advantageous to be Asian than to be wealthy, to have non-divorced parents, or to have a mother who is able to stay at home full time."

Why do Asian kids do so well? A lot of it has to do with cultural capital -- the set of habits, expectations and values shared by the family and the group. Cultural capital isn't about how smart you are. It's about how much value you place on education, how persistent you are in overcoming obstacles, and how hard you're willing to work to achieve your goals.

Asian educational achievement is stunning. When California eliminated racial preferences, Asian university enrolment soared. Asians account for 13 per cent of California's population, but they make up 25 per cent of the undergraduates at Stanford and 41 per cent at Berkeley.

Meantime, Hispanics and Latinos are near the bottom of the heap, regardless of whether they are foreign or U.S.-born. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only 53 per cent of Hispanic high-school graduates are at least "minimally qualified" for admission to college, as opposed to nearly 70 per cent of white high-school graduates.

The education system is supposed to be the great equalizer. So what can the schools do about these achievement gaps? People in Toronto are discussing all the usual stuff -- a more inclusive curriculum, more ethnic teachers, more outreach to families, more rejection of ethnic stereotypes, and, of course, an end to discrimination. But the education system's ability to equalize the outcomes is probably severely limited. That's because cultural capital is formed at home and formed early.

How can society enrich a child's cultural capital? That's one of the most challenging and important social questions we face. In an age when immigration is so essential to Canada -- and when educational achievement increasingly determines social class and life success -- it's hard to overstate how much rides on the outcome. mwente@globeandmail.com

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