Harold Stevenson, in memoriam

Harold Stevenson, one of the most eminent education researchers of our generation, died in July at the age of 80. A professor of psychology at the University of Michigan for thirty years, Stevenson was best known for his book (co-authored by James Stigler), The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education, published in 1992. He was honored by the American Psychological Society for his ground-breaking work as a developmental psychologist and his contributions to cross-national research.

While serving in the Navy during World War II, Stevenson became fluent in Japanese, a skill that served him well in his later studies of Japanese schools. In 1973, Stevenson was among the first American researchers to visit the People's Republic of China. His comparative studies of American, Chinese, and Japanese educational systems were written with an eye to public policy. He carefully documented the differences among these systems and cultures that appeared to influence student achievement. His writings appeared in prestigious academic and scientific journals, and he was widely quoted for his insights into the sources of achievement.

Stevenson pinpointed differences in classroom activities, parent attitudes and behavior, and cultural values that were amenable to change. Among these were, for example, his finding that parents in Asian societies value effort and thus expect their children to work hard in school, while American parents tend to value their children's innate abilities and thus excuse their mediocre academic performance.

The Learning Gap was especially influential because it appeared at a time when there was a heated debate among education researchers about whether the performance of American students was or was not problematic. Defenders of the status quo claimed that critics of student performance were trying to "destroy" the public schools. They charged that international assessments - on which American students performed poorly, especially in high school - were technically flawed and therefore of no significance. Whatever the evidence, the defenders of the status quo belittled it as well as anyone who dared to say that poor academic achievement was a serious national concern, not only for children in the inner-city, but for students in leafy suburbs as well.

Into this debate, Stevenson waded with a mountain of unassailable empirical data comparing the results of the American educational system unfavorably to those in Asian countries. Stevenson was not by nature a controversialist or ideologue, and - unlike some of his adversaries - he never stooped to mudslinging or invective. He was by nature a reasonable, quiet, gentle, fair-minded man, who backed up his arguments with a wealth of evidence. He was also a courageous man who did not hesitate to engage in debate with others, ever hopeful that reason and evidence would win the day.

Based on his deep knowledge of Japanese national standards, Stevenson became a strong critic of the standards promulgated by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). He spoke in various forums about their deficiencies, his main complaint being that they were vague aspirations, not curricular standards. They were strong on desirable student attitudes, he said, but unclear when it came to describing the skills to be taught and learned. They supported calculators and computers in the classroom, which were not permitted by Japanese and Chinese teachers who believed that students would learn how to operate the device rather than to understand the problems they were supposed to solve. The standards, he said, might prove helpful to highly prepared teachers and very bright children, but he predicted that they would offer little help to the majority of teachers and students.

Stevenson was a man of integrity who showed that education research could be a powerful instrument for the improvement of education. He will be missed.

A TIMSS Primer, by Harold Stevenson for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, July 1, 1998

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