Psychologist’s Cross-National Studies in Math Show U.S.'s Long

March 13, 1991 7 min read

Road to ‘First in the World’ By Robert Rothman

Ann Arbor, Mich--Not that anyone from the White House or state capitols has asked, but Harold W. Stevenson has some advice for President Bush and the nation’s governors.

The chief executives, in their joint statement issued last year, have pledged to make U.S. students “first in the world” in mathematics achievement by the year 2000.

To Mr. Stevenson, who has spent the last decade studying the math performance of elementary students in the United States, China, and Japan, the proposed national goal is “ludicrous.”

“They haven’t said anything about how they propose to get there,” he points out.

Mr. Stevenson, whose research has shattered numerous myths about education here and abroad, is in a good position to know something about the obstacles the chief executives face.

While some cross-national studies have shown that high-school students in other countries outperform Americans, research conducted by Mr. Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan here, indicates that the performance of U.S. students lags behind that of their peers as early as the 1st grade, and that the gaps widen between the 1st and 5th grades.

Moreover, he and his colleagues have found, new data that have yet to be published show that the situation has not im6proved in recent years, despite the broad national attention to school reform.

Perhaps more significantly, Mr. Stevenson has found, factors that might improve student performance have also not improved. Despite Americans’ poor performance, the data show, parents in the U.S. are more satisfied than those in Asia with their children’s level of achievement. And notwithstanding the efforts at curricular reform, American schools continue to use less effective teaching strategies than Asian schools employ.

While Mr. Stevenson’s work has won praise from fellow researchers, it has met with indifference among educators, he says. Many educators contend that the comparisons are unimportant because schools and cultures are so different in the United States and Asia.

But Mr. Stevenson responds that the comparisons are valuable, because they can serve as a mirror to enable educators to examine their own schools in a broader perspective.

“We know we’re not going to take what’s going on in Asia and transplant it,” he says. “Comparisons show you what you’re doing.”

“Unless you take the time to go to classrooms and have something to compare it to,” he adds, “you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Best known for his studies of math achievement, Mr. Stevenson actually began his international research by studying children’s reading performance.

One of the first American researchers to enter China after U.S.-Chinese relations were restored, Mr. Stevenson won a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to investigate whether, as the popular theory held, Asian children, because of their writing system, had fewer reading disabilities than Americans did.

In fact, he found, “Japanese and Chinese children had just as many reading disabilities as Americans.”

But in the course of his research, he points out, he discovered a discrepancy that was particularly startling: the gaps in math performance.

“I decided I’d like to understand how this could be,” he recalls. ''Japanese children, by the time they are in kindergarten, are so much superior to American children, and Chinese children, when they are in 1st grade for a few months,” are also ahead of their American peers.

Mr. Stevenson rejected the notion that Asians are smarter than Americans.

“It simply isn’t true,” he says. “There is no evidence that [Asian] children have higher intellectual functioning than Westerners.”

“If it isn’t a matter of intelligence,” he continues, “it has to be something that goes on in the school and home. The only way to investigate that is to go to schools, and to interview mothers, fathers, and children every day.”

While other international studies have struggled for government funding, Mr. Stevenson notes, he found receptivent makers at the National Science Foundation.

“They were very interested,” he says. The fact that “by 1st grade, even kindergarten, [U.S. students performed relatively poorly] was startling to them.”

To find out about the nature of the discrepancies in math performance, Mr. Stevenson and his colleagues in 1980 studied intensively 240 1st graders and 240 5th graders from three cities: Minneapolis; Taipei, Taiwan; and Sendai, Japan.

The three cities were roughly similar in size and “cultural status” within their countries, he notes.

For a second study, conducted in 1985 and 1986, Mr. Stevenson selected schools in Chicago, rather than Minneapolis, because the Illinois city is “more representative” of schools in the United States.

The researchers pored over math textbooks in each of the countries to choose test items that reflected the curriculum students had been exposed to. They also wrote the tests and survey questions jointly to avoid some translation problems that had plagued previous cross-national studies, Mr. Stevenson says.

“What was wrong with so many other studies is that they make up the materials in English and translate them into other languages,” he says. “That technique has a lot of problems. You cannot ask questions in certain ways in different languages.”

In addition to documenting student performance on math tests, the Michigan researchers analyzed factors that could affect performance. In doing so, they exploded some myths, just as Mr. Stevenson had done with his reading-disability study.

In perhaps their best-known finding, the researchers revealed that American parents tended more than Asians to attribute math failure to children’s lack of ability, rather than to insufficient effort.

“What surprised me was that Americans kept informing us that innate ability was a modifier of working hard,” he recalls. “I thought Americans would be strong supporters of working hard.”

Mr. Stevenson also found that, contrary to popular perceptions, American children start out their school careers with more knowledge and motivation for learning than the Asian children. But these advantages soon get wiped away, he found.

“In the U.S., parents provide a stimulating environment to kids before they go to school--they buy books, read to them, take them on outings,” he points out. “When the kid enters school, parents say, ‘It’s the school’s job to educate my child.”’

In analyzing classrooms, Mr. Stevenson also disproved the notion that Americans fare poorly because teachers face heterogeneous classes, while Asian students are more homogeneous. In fact, he found, although there was more diversity among schools in the United States, the classrooms were equally diverse.

In their most recent study, conducted last year, the researchers followed up on many of the 1st graders who were in their original 1980 study. They also conducted in-depth analyses of classroom practices by having observers visit about 20 classrooms in each city.

The studies suggest that the governors and President Bush have a daunting task ahead of them in making American students first in the world in math, Mr. Stevenson observes.

While the American students’ performance improved little over the decade relative to that of their Asian peers, he points out, the American parents studied nevertheless tended to be satisfied with their children’s performance. By contrast, he notes, Asian parents tended more than Americans to believe their children should do better.

“One question is, where the impetus will come from for school reform if parents have such positive attitudes about how well their children are doing and schools are doing,” the Michigan researcher states.

The classroom observations also document obstacles American reformers face, Mr. Stevenson reports. Despite Asians’ reputation for rigid classrooms in which students work at their desks on rote drills, he says, their countries actually employ more effective teaching methods than those of Americans educators.

But he hastens to add that he is not engaging in “teacher bashing,” and he proposes that the governors and the President start on their quest to improve Americans’ performance by reducing teaching loads. That way, he suggests, American teachers--like their Chinese and Japanese counterparts--could plan lessons better and consult with colleagues.

“The image I get is that American teachers are required to make up a concerto every hour, and play it with finesse,” he says. “In Asia, they play [an already-written] concerto in a very effective way.”

But he says that, in order to improve instruction, teachers need to be aware of what they are doing--and what could be done. And that, he contends, can only be done through international comparisons.

“This is why comparative studies are so valuable,” Mr. Stevenson says. “People don’t realize this until you actually have data.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Psychologist’s Cross-National Studies in Math Show U.S.'s Long