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We Emphasize Limits, Not Possibility

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The psychologists Harold W. Stevenson of the University of Michigan and James W. Stigler of the University of California at Los Angeles present in The Learning Gap lessons drawn from five studies comparing teachers, parents, children, schools, and educational practices in the United States and three Asian countries--Japan, Taiwan, and China.

Some of their conclusions run counter to prevailing opinion (that class size should be increased, for example), and some--like the one presented in the following excerpt--represent common sense wisdom undergirded by fresh insight from research:

By Harold W. Stevenson and James W. Stigler

Perhaps the most self-defeating belief that has taken hold in the United States during recent decades concerns the relative contributions of innate ability and effort to achievement. Early in our country's history, probably as part of the Protestant work ethic, people believed they could achieve almost anything with enough effort. We have gradually come to emphasize the limits on what can be accomplished imposed by innate differences among individuals.

There are--and always will be--individual differences among human beings in whatever characteristics are measured. But this variability should not be interpreted to mean that the general level of accomplishment cannot be raised. Why dwell on the fact that some students will do better than others, when the whole distribution of scores is depressed? The worst Chinese students in mathematics received scores [on cross-cultural comparisons] that were near the average for American students!

A person's willingness to expend effort depends on whether he or she believes the effort is worthwhile. Those who suggest that not all children are capable of mastering the elementary-school curriculum because of differences in innate ability are engaged in a self-fulfilling prophecy by depriving them of the opportunity to learn with and from their fellow students. Espousing a position that effectively limits the accomplishments of certain members of the population is a serious obstacle to introducing change.

The "miracle'' of Asian economic development is no less impressive than the "miracle'' of Asian children's academic achievement. Behind both of these so-called miracles is the conviction that accomplishment depends on dedication and hard work. By assuming that all children are able to learn effectively if they are taught well and work hard, Asians have enhanced the achievement of all their children.

Examples from the United States can also be cited that call into question the restrictive power of presumed limits imposed by innate ability. Record after record has been shattered in sports not because of genetic changes in human potential, but because of improvements in the physical condition of the athletes, their training, and the skill of their coaches. Stereotypes have also been destroyed in other areas. It would have been inconceivable 30 years ago that a youth with Down's syndrome could star in a popular television series. The status of people with Down's syndrome has steadily improved during recent years, partly because of the discovery that, with effort, they could learn more effectively than had been supposed.

Similarly, teachers in East Los Angeles high schools would have dismissed the suggestion that their Chicano students could become high achievers in mathematics until Jaime Escalante demonstrated that with dedication, self-confidence, and hard work, potential high-school dropouts could excel on advanced-placement tests of college-entrance examinations. Of course there are limits to what different people are capable of achieving, but we should make no uninformed assumptions about what these limits are.

The belief in the importance of hard work is not alien to Americans. The mystery is why, in the later years of the 20th century, we have modified this belief in such a destructive way. Why do we dwell on the differences among us, rather than on our similarities? Why are we unwilling to see that the whole society is advanced when all of its members, not only privileged socioeconomic and ethnic groups, are given the opportunity to use their abilities to their fullest?

How much more strongly do we need to be shocked by data that herald decline in our children's academic achievement before we devote ourselves wholeheartedly and sincerely to the improvement of the education we give our children at home and at school?

The American educational system as it currently exists is producing an educationally advantaged minority and a disadvantaged majority. The outcome is the perpetuation and amplification of socioeconomic differences and potential conflict within the population. Asian educational systems, on the other hand, give the great majority of citizens about the same educational start in life and tend toward social equality. Such social and political benefits may in the long run prove to be important for both the health of a nation and its economic competitiveness.

From The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education, by Harold W. Stevenson & James W. Stigler. Summit Books, Simon & Schuster Building, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. 237 pp., $22 cloth.

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