When American students do not measure up, either in international or national studies, parents and teachers blame low aptitude: The students can't do the work. But when Japanese students underperform, parents and teachers conclude the student has not worked hard enough. And in China, virtually every student learns advanced math; it's assumed they can.
Instead of bemoaning studies such as the recent one that showed U.S. eighth-graders still lagging behind other developed countries in science and math, it's time to make can-do, not can't-do, a central message in U.S. education. Extensive research shows us how-and also shows what happens when can't-do persists.
When researcher Uri Treisman saw African-American college students performing poorly in calculus while Chinese students excelled, he did not accept the conventional wisdom that African-Americans' low achievement was due to poverty or poor schools.
Instead, Treisman spent months observing the Chinese students. He found that they spent more hours studying than other students and that they often studied in groups — for example, working out extra homework problems.
Treisman then re-created these study patterns with African-American students, who went on to excel in calculus. In fact, Treisman's African-American workshop students consistently outperformed Anglos and Asian-Americans.
Stretching students by giving them extra, advanced problems was a central component of Treisman's approach. In a follow-up study, Martin Bonsangue and I found this approach also had dramatic positive effects among a group of mostly Latino college students.
Yet the can't-do attitude is pervasive. For example, when I asked college students to rate their own math ability compared with students their age, less than a quarter of the women who were in the top 10% of students their age actually believed they were that good.
Or consider what social psychologist Claude Steele found when he tested groups of white and African-American college students who had comparable grades. One group was told the tests would be extremely difficult, while the other got a low-key introduction to exactly the same test. In the first case, black students fared far worse than white ones. In the second, they performed just as well. Black students, Steele concluded, are highly affected by the stereotype and expectation that they are not as intelligent.
A colleague of mine, Michele Foster, suggests an apt metaphor: Teenagers hardly can contain their enthusiasm about learning to drive, and we assume they will master this skill. Some may fail their written or driving tests once, twice, even three times — but soon they all will be driving. Parents and teachers don't debate whether a young person has the aptitude to drive.
They should take the same attitude toward math and science achievement. Instead, we Americans do a massive disservice to our children by lowering our expectations of what any one child can learn in math, science-or any other discipline. We erode students' achievement, self-confidence and aspiration levels.
Worse yet, in the case of math and science, we perpetuate the damaging myth that low aptitude accounts for women, minorities and the poor lagging behind. This only increases the achievement gap within our own country and with students abroad.
Local teachers and administrators, faced with a constantly changing array of reforms, are desperate for well-informed, sensible and consistent state and national leadership that will help schools break old, negative habits. But this will not come easily. As an educator who has witnessed decades of well-intentioned educational-policy change, I know all too well that there's a desperate leadership vacuum on this issue.
Researchers and politicians must learn a common language that neither over-intellectualizes issues nor simply reduces them to sound bites — and then put it to use. Telling our children that they can do the work is a good place to start.
David E. Drew is dean of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University and author of Aptitude Revisited: Rethinking Math and Science Education for America's Next Century. This article is reprinted with permission.