The University Record, February 18, 1998

Spotlight on Research: AAAS Presentations
Sources of Asian academic achievement revealed

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Which is the most important factor influencing student performance in mathematics: A good teacher? Innate intelligence? Home environment? Studying hard?

They're all important, of course. But differences in how Asians and Americans answer the question help explain the U.S. disadvantage in math and science achievement, according to a U-M researcher.

Over half the Chinese and Japanese interviewed said studying hard was the most important factor, Harold W. Stevenson reported at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The majority of Americans, on the other hand, said the ticket to success was a good teacher.

Stevenson, professor of psychology and fellow at the Center for Human Growth and Development, presented insights from an ongoing study of East Asian and Western cultures about why students in East Asian countries excel in math and science while U.S. students lag behind.

One of the underlying sources of the poor performance of U.S. students, Stevenson said, is that "U.S. teachers have neither the time nor opportunity to work together to create the interesting, coherent, carefully planned lessons that are available to teachers in Japan and other countries.

"Until teachers are provided with the time to master the content of lessons they're teaching and to acquire the finely developed teaching techniques that ensure the most effective presentation of information," it seems very unlikely that rapid advancement will be made in U.S. student achievement.

The second major difference is what Stevenson regards as an inexplicably high level of satisfaction with their children's education that robs U.S. parents and children alike of the motivation to do better. In studies involving several thousand mothers, for example, Stevenson and colleagues found that, despite the poor showing of U.S. students in comparative studies, more than 40 percent of U.S. mothers said they were very satisfied with their child's academic achievement. Fewer than 5 percent of Chinese and Japanese mothers felt the same way.

"Not only do East Asian and Western parents differ in their degree of satisfaction with their children's performance, they also differ in the beliefs about how that performance might be improved," Stevenson noted.

While U.S. parents and students were most likely to say that a good teacher is the most important factor in improving academic achievement, Asians were likely to believe that all students can improve simply by studying hard.

"In short," concluded Stevenson, "the East Asian students assumed responsibility for their own progress while the North American students let others take responsibility for their performance."