The secrets of Asian education success
Countries share a cultural focus on learning, strong teachers
Why are Asian nations such strong education performers? Researchers and policymakers are asking this question as students in East Asia and Singapore outperform Western counterparts in international tests and other international comparisons. While culture certainly plays a role, these countries’ education systems share some other common factors, including an emphasis on teacher quality, which could inform reform efforts elsewhere.
Shanghai grabbed headlines in 2009 when its 15-year-olds scored first in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. Other parts of Asia weren’t far behind, with South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan all ranking among the top.
The latter also take four of the top five spots in the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, which compares the educational performance of 39 countries and Hong Kong. According to the Index, which incorporates cognitive skills in reading, maths and science, along with literacy and graduation rates, South Korea ranks second, after Finland, followed by Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.
Top performers – Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment
Note: The chart shows countries in Index Group 1 (z-scores at least one standard deviation above the mean) and Group 2 (z-scores within half to one standard deviation above the mean.)
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.
East Asian schools owe their success, in part, to a Confucian culture that places a high value on education. Young children receive the message from parents and society that they must excel in school to succeed in life. As a result, children begin intensive studies at a young age, supplementing regular school with cram courses and tutoring. In China, learning sometimes even begins before birth, with expecting mothers reciting English phrases and Tang Dynasty poems to fetuses in utero.
The high quality of teachers is another key reason for these countries’ strong performance. Teachers enjoy respected status in many Asian countries, so the sector tends to attract strong talent. Just as important, the education systems provide “real career prospects” for teachers, says Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education at the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), which administers PISA. “Teachers very much take on a professional stance.”
In Singapore, all teachers receive training at the National Institute of Education. Salaries are competitive, with bonuses for high-performers. New teachers get paired with mentors, and all teachers are eligible for 100 hours of free professional development each year. Those who demonstrate leadership skills receive additional training at NIE.
Teachers in Asia often teach larger classes but spend fewer hours in front of students, leaving more time for class preparation and activities that boost their growth – and student learning. Upper secondary teachers in Japan spent 27% of their working time teaching in 2010 and those in South Korea, 37%, compared to 53% for US teachers, according to OECD data.
In Shanghai, lower-secondary teachers oversee classes averaging 40 students, but spend only 10 to 12 hours per week in the classroom on average, according to a 2012 report by the Grattan Institute, an independent policy think tank in Australia. They use the other time for mentoring, research, classroom observation and other activities that have a “proven impact on learning,” the report said.
Indeed, “there is an incredible focus on student learning” in Asian education systems, says Dr Ben Jensen, director of Grattan’s School Education Program. “That may sound obvious, but to improve teaching, you need to do this across the entire system. [In successful Asian systems,] all policy and programmes focus on student learning.”
Hong Kong’s education reforms demonstrate such a systemic approach, as well as the sort of long-term commitment by policymakers that has proven critical to the success of Asian nations’ education programmes. After deciding that it needed to overhaul its education system to better prepare its citizens to compete in a global market, Hong Kong spent 20 months to design a strategy and implementation plan. Since 2000, it has stayed the course in rolling out its reforms, slated to be completed in 2016.
Ironically, all the international interest in Asia’s education success coincides with growing discontent in many countries in the region over their education systems, and specifically, the emphasis they place on rote learning. Such an approach may build strong test-takers, but it also puts huge pressure on students and discourages independent thinking, many Asian educators, policymakers and parents believe.
To address some of these concerns, some places, including Hong Kong and Japan, have moved to reduce class sizes. Asian educators are also streaming to the US and other Western countries to understand how their education systems foster creative thinking. Some 226 of the 248 visitors who visited the University of Oregon’s Office of Global Education over the past 18 months came from China, with many seeking training on pedagogical practices that encourage creativity.
But this, too, is something that Western educators can learn from. Singapore, for one, has built a highly effective education system largely based on ideas borrowed from other countries. In the West, “we are very bad at looking beyond our borders,” says Professor Schleicher. “But if you don’t create a more global environment, if you’re not willing to look at your system within it, it’s very hard to change things.”
 Grattan Institute, "Catching Up: Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia", February 2012.