LOS ANGELES -- Harold W. Stevenson, a University of Michigan psychologist whose provocative comparisons of American grade school teachers and students with their counterparts in Japan and Taiwan provided strong arguments for education reform in the United States, particularly in the way math was taught, has died. He was 80.
Dr. Stevenson, who until recently lived in Ann
Dr. Stevenson was the author, with University of California, Los Angeles professor James W. Stigler, of the 1992 book ''The Learning Gap, Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education."
The book punctured stereotypes of Asian elementary schools as high-pressured learning factories and illuminated what many specialists came to agree were grave deficiencies in the US education system, including weak academic standards, overburdened teachers, and misguided cultural beliefs about parental roles and the importance of individual student effort.
Dr. Stevenson ''added very important things to the conversation about American education," said Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second largest teachers union. ''He looked at family attitudes and priorities, teacher training, and methods. He was really a pioneer in cross-cultural comparisons" in education.
Although educators had known as early as the 1960s that Japanese and other Asian students ranked higher than Americans on international assessments of academic achievement, the explanations were ''too often cloaked in speculation," said Jack Schwille, assistant dean for international studies in education at Michigan State University. ''Stevenson collected data on classroom teaching and learning [that] could help explain the differences," Schwille said, ''and he got educators and laypersons to pay attention to them."
Dr. Stevenson's work was often cited during the national debate over education standards in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly in discussions of US students' poor mastery of math. He argued that US educators would do well to emulate the systems in Japan and Taiwan, where learning goals are carefully plotted and clearly defined, and creative hands-on exercises are considered crucial.
At the core of the Asian schools' success in math, Dr. Stevenson believed, were thoroughly trained teachers who were given ample support during the school day to craft lessons and share ideas with colleagues.
''Stevenson's work made clear the kind of education that was really going on in Asia . . . and helped pave the way for some improvements we see now, especially in California," said David Klein, a mathematics professor at California State University, Northridge, who has been active in the movement to strengthen math teaching in the United States.
Dr. Stevenson's interest in Asian schools began in the 1970s when he joined the first delegation of American child development experts to visit China since the Communist takeover in 1949. In 1976 he began to plan the first in a series of studies examining the factors underlying academic achievement in the United States and East Asia.
Over the next decade, Dr. Stevenson and his colleagues spent hundreds of hours observing elementary school classrooms in Minneapolis, Taipei, Taiwan, and Sendai, Japan.
The researchers eventually focused their inquiries on math achievement because the gap between American and Asian students in that subject was so wide. By fifth grade, Dr. Stevenson and Stigler found, the lowest-scoring Japanese classroom still outperformed the highest-scoring US classroom.
In contrast to the Japanese, American teachers were loathe to submit their students to public scrutiny out of fear it would damage the youngsters' self-esteem, Dr. Stevenson and his colleagues found. Moreover, US teachers often segregated students into low- and high-ability groups, a practice that Stevenson said reflected a deeply held belief that not all students could succeed.
Another important difference he found was that Japanese and Chinese teachers received considerably more time during the school day to prepare lessons, discuss goals with other teachers and work with individual students. On average, they spent only three to five hours a day in front of a classroom.
In the United States, however, ''we keep teachers busy in front of the classroom all day long," Dr. Stevenson told The Dallas Morning News in 1993. ''We deprive teachers of opportunities for . . . extending their knowledge, both in the subject area they're teaching and also in methods, so that it's very difficult for American teachers to do a good job."
A native of Dines, Wyo., Dr. Stevenson spent his undergraduate years at the University of Colorado, earning a bachelor's degree in 1947. He received a master's in 1948 and doctorate in 1951 from Stanford University. He was fluent in Japanese, which he learned while serving in World War II.
He taught at several colleges and universities, including Pomona College from 1950-53, before joining the University of Michigan faculty in 1971. He directed the university's program in child development and social policy from 1978 to 1993. He retired in 2001.
Dr. Stevenson leaves his wife, Nancy; and four children, a brother, and seven grandchildren.