Australia’s Chinese Students do as well as Shanghai Students

New research has refuted claims that differences in teacher quality are the primary reason for the large difference in international test results between Shanghai and Australia. It shows that Chinese immigrant students in Australia (and New Zealand) achieve similar math scores to students in Shanghai. The study suggests that culture appears to have been more important than national policies:

….cultural background appears to be more consequential for the educational attainment of Chinese immigrant students than exposure to the educational systems of Australia or New Zealand.

Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea regularly top international test results. Their success is often ascribed to high quality teaching and calls have been made for Australia to imitate the policies of these countries. For example, the Grattan Institute has been instrumental in promoting East Asia as a model for improving teacher quality in Australia. It says that Australia has much to learn from teacher training and mentoring in these countries.

Australia may have much to learn from teacher training and development in these countries, but the idea that East Asian success is largely due to their methods of teacher training and mentoring ignores alternative explanations. Save Our Schools has often pointed out (for example, here and here) that the long hours of homework and intensive use of coaching schools (“cram” schools) are significant factors behind the success of these countries. It reflects the strong influence of Confucian culture about the importance of education as witnessed by the Tiger mother syndrome.

In an article in 2012 reviewing a report titled Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia by Ben Jensen, education director at the Grattan Institute, SOS member Dr. Ian Morgan had this to say:

There is in fact a simple way to test which factors are likely to explain the somewhat higher educational outcomes in East Asia. Jensen’s proposition is that better teachers are responsible for the high educational performance. Recent patterns of migration mean that Australia now has a substantial population of East Asian origin, and the performance of children of East Asian origin in Australian schools can be examined. The results are very clear – children of East Asian origin are top performers in Australian schools, out-performing students of European ancestry. Precise data are limited, but rough calculations suggest that a child of East Asian origin has 2-3 times the chance of being in the Year 12 All-Rounders List in the NSW Year 12 results than a child of European ancestry.
The implications are clear. Children of East Asian ancestry growing up in Australia do not bring East Asian teachers with them, but they do bring their community and family focus on education, and their Tiger mothers. The data available are again limited, but consistently suggest that children of Chinese origin do more homework than children of European origin, and are more likely to attend coaching classes. It is clear that better teachers cannot account for the higher performance of children of East Asian origin in Australia. Other factors must be important.

Well, new data is now available and it shows that Dr. Morgan was spot on. It is published in a paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Education Policy. Drawing on the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2009, the paper shows that students from Chinese origin in Australia and New Zealand achieved math scores that are more similar to those of students in Shanghai than to their non-Chinese Australian and New Zealand peers.

The average score for Shanghai’s students in mathematics was about 600 points, while the average for students of Chinese origin in Australia was 615 points. There was no statistically significant difference in these results. By comparison, the average for non-Chinese students in Australia was about 515 points.

A similar pattern was found in New Zealand. The difference between Shanghai students and students of Chinese origin in New Zealand was relatively small and not statistically significant. The difference between Chinese and non-Chinese students in New Zealand was much greater as in Australia.

The study also took account of differences in socio-economic status and home resources in the three countries. This analysis confirmed that Chinese students who live in Australia achieved similar scores to those of students who live in Shanghai and much higher scores than non-Chinese Australian students.

In explaining these results, the study notes that other studies have shown that East Asian parents, both in their homeland and elsewhere, place a very high value on educational achievement, and many of them send their children to after-school supplementary private tutoring, also known as shadow education or cram schooling. Based on the PISA 2009 data, it found that more than 60 per cent of Shanghai students attended out-of-school math classes. In Australia, about 40 per cent of the Chinese origin students attended tutoring classes compared to only about 10 per cent of non-Chinese students.

The study suggests that the results show that more consideration should be given to cultural factors in comparing international test results such as PISA. It is highly critical of the OECD’s own analysis of the PISA results for ignoring the influence of cultural factors. It says that the study’s findings provide “at least prima facia evidence that the OECD report’s rejection of cultural explanations is likely misguided” and that greater care is needed in the interpretation and uses of international test results such as PISA:

While it may be politically attractive and expedient to attempt to imitate the educational policies and structures of high-attaining systems, our analysis reinforces the argument that such cross-national policy borrowing will be ineffective without attending to the historical and cultural contexts in which those policies operate.
….we need to devote more of our research energies to deciphering and defusing the social and political contexts that reward simplistic versions… the expense of more nuanced and complex interpretations.

The study concludes that policy makers need a much better understanding of how differences in cultural contexts interact with social structures, educational policies and school practices to shape educational opportunities. It is a conclusion that politicians and researchers in Australia would do well to heed.

Yariv Feniger & Adam Lefstein (2014). How not to reason with PISA data: an ironic investigation. Journal of Education Policy , 29 (6): 845-855.

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