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U.S. Students Report More School Stress Than Asian Peers

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Contrary to the popular conception that Asian students feel pressured and overworked in school, preliminary findings from an international study suggest that American teenagers may be more likely than their Asian counterparts to say they feel school-related stress.

The findings by Harold W. Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and his colleagues are based on tests and questionnaires administered to more than 8,500 11th graders in Minneapolis; Fairfax County, Va.; Alberta, Canada; Sendai, Japan; Taipai, Taiwan; and Beijing, China.

Mr. Stevenson, whose research has punctured numerous false perceptions about education here and abroad, said the greater stress American students say they feel may be due in part to the differing expectations parents have for their children.

"Our interpretation of all this is that in Asia, parents and society give teenagers one message: 'You're supposed to do well in school,''' Mr. Stevenson said. "Whereas, in the United States, parents say, 'I want you to do well in school. I want you to be popular, to be good in sports, and to get a part-time job.'''

Mr. Stevenson and his colleagues have been studying the mathematics performance of children in Minneapolis, Taipei, and Sendai since 1980. (See Education Week, March 13, 1991.) The researchers began to broaden that ongoing research effort in recent years, however, to include other school systems.

Many of the newer data, however, have not yet been analyzed. The preliminary findings Mr. Stevenson discussed in an interview last week were part of a presentation made this month to Fairfax County school officials.

'Defying the Norm'

In the part of the study discussed last week, students in four of the school systems--Fairfax County, Minneapolis, Sendai, and Taipei--were asked how often they felt depressed or experienced stress. Over all, Mr. Stevenson said, the responses showed that "all the kids are in very good shape.''

However, more than 40 percent of the Fairfax County 11th graders--and almost as high a percentage of pupils in Minneapolis--said they experienced school-related stress almost every day. In Sendai, fewer than 20 percent of the students said they felt stress daily. That figure was closer to 30 percent in Taipei.

In the United States, Mr. Stevenson said, feelings of stress were more frequent among the students who were doing well in school. The reverse, however, was true in the Asian nations, where the lower-achieving students said they felt more stress.

"In America, you're defying the norm by doing well,'' he said. "In Asia, you are defying the norm by not doing well.''

The surveys also showed that American students tend to think more highly of themselves than do Asian students. They consistently rated themselves better than average in academic achievement, intellectual ability, physical appearance, athletic ability, and in getting along with other young people, among other attributes.

Yet, as Mr. Stevenson's previous studies also have shown, they performed more poorly than did Asian students on tests of math achievement.

The researchers found one American school, however, that managed to bridge the achievement gap between the nations. Students at Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, a magnet school for gifted students in Fairfax County, performed as well as the Asian students on the math tests.

"That shows that all this crying about how American students can't do it just isn't true,'' Mr. Stevenson said.

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