Imitating East Asian Schools is a Short-Sighted Solution

Ben Jensen’s reporting on Catching Up –Learning From the Best Schools in East Asia, has received a good press – possibly because it seems to promise low cost improvement in educational standards in Australia through a low cost program of teacher training, mentoring and remuneration. This presents a low cost alternative to the $5 billion a year approach to disadvantage recommended by the Gonski review of school funding. Unfortunately, the Jensen report is flawed in its methodology, with a very selective survey of the relevant data and an arbitrary dismissal of alternative explanations, all of which flows on into simplistic conclusions.

Given the composition of the top 10 performers in the PISA survey, it is surprising that Jensen focuses on only four locations –Shanghai-China, Korea, Hong Kong-China and Singapore. These four are in the top five performers, but the list leaves out one of the top five performers, Finland, which in social, cultural and political terms would be a very natural system to compare to Australia. It is striking that the report does not even mention Finland once. So, its conclusions are based on a highly selected sample. It also needs to be mentioned that Australia is still in the top 10 in the PISA survey, along with Canada and New Zealand.

There are, of course, many differences between education in Shanghai-China, Korea, Hong Kong-China and Singapore and education in Australia. Some, such as Confucianism, rote-learning and Tiger Mothers are briefly mentioned, and summarily dismissed in one paragraph. Others do not even rate a mention.

At the least, alternative explanations of the strong performance of four of the top 5 should have been seriously considered. I would point to the long hours of homework that young people in East Asia complete in the search for excellent results in the final examination for university entrance. Children start with about two hours homework a night on entering primary school, and this ramps up to 5-6 hours, sometimes with additional classes in the evenings and on Saturdays as the final examinations approach. This is backed up by extensive use of coaching classes, especially in mathematics, by nearly 80% of students in Korea (and Shanghai-China), compared to under 20% in Australia, and even less in Finland.

These study loads are buttressed by social expectations based on Confucian beliefs in the importance of educational success as a duty owed by young people to their family and their society in general, and enforced by the commitment of schools, teachers and parents, including Tiger Mothers, to achieving outstanding results. Jensen simply ignores most of this context.

China, for one, is naturally proud of its educational successes, but is much less enthusiastic than Jensen about its schooling system overall. The Chinese press is full of stories on the demands and stress placed on children to achieve educationally, which are often described as robbing children of their childhood. There are stories of child suicides in response to these educational pressures, and in fact these East Asian locations have among the highest child suicide rates in the world.

This is already not a pretty picture, but one other fact is relevant. In the past decades, children in East Asia have become highly short-sighted, with around 80-90% of children leaving school at Year 12 level needing glasses. Around 15-20% of these school leavers have such severe myopia that they are at high risk of uncorrectable vision impairment and even blindness later in life. This was not the case 40-50 years ago, and it is now widely accepted that this epidemic of myopia is driven by the combination of intense study and limited time outdoors. This is a pretty bleak picture to contrast with the picture of educational success.

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.

It is also important to assess if better teachers could address the major issue for Australian education, which the Gonski report has rightly identified as the lower educational outcomes associated with various forms of social disadvantage. Putting to one side the issue of students with disabilities, which is a different form of disadvantage which urgently needs to be addressed, there are major impacts of Indigenous background, rural and remote location and socio-economic status on educational outcomes in Australia. These factors are particularly potent when combined, and the educational outcomes of Indigenous origin from outback communities are a national disgrace.

It seems very unlikely that these disparities are due to children from these backgrounds systematically getting the least adequate teachers. Were this the case, it would add a national scandal to a national disgrace. It is far more likely that social disadvantage leads to greater learning needs.

One aspect of the NAPLAN results is encouraging, for children from these backgrounds make good progress at school, but they start behind, and they end up behind. They simply do not catch up. Socially disadvantaged communities therefore need something more – early intervention to help their kids start their schooling from the same base as kids from more advantaged communities. This probably needs to be backed up by ensuring that the best teachers are allocated to these communities.

There are two problems here. One is that we cannot be sure that the best teachers for the leafy suburbs of the well-off will necessarily be the best to work in disadvantaged communities. But whatever the definition of best, getting the best teachers into those communities will require appropriate incentives, which is difficult to achieve in a system which abandons centralised allocation of teachers in favour of devolved hiring and firing of teachers, unless the disadvantaged communities are given really massive funding advantages. Otherwise, local hiring and firing simply further advantages the already advantaged.

I do not wish to argue with a soft version of Jensen – that improved teacher training and mentoring would be a worth-while investment. An emphasis on teachers is a factor that characterises all of the top five performers, not just Jensen’s selected four. But we also need to look at Finland in more detail as a much better model for a successful education system than East Asia, which has high outcomes without the massive problems that Jensen has simply ignored in East Asia. Here, the virtual absence of private schools, and the complete absence of high fee private schools, and the absence of the increasingly high stakes testing that is currently being inflicted on Australian schools, may be very important.

But Jensen’s attribution of the high performance of East Asian school systems solely to better teacher training, mentoring and remuneration does seem to be simplistic in the extreme. And the idea that better teachers is the solution to the problem of disadvantage in Australia schools is equally simplistic. The $5 billion advocated by the Gonski report will be needed to help turn socially disadvantaged communities into effective learning communities, providing the children from these communities with the support they need to finally catch up. Jensen’s focus on teachers can only be a small part of the solution.

Dr. Ian Morgan

Ian Morgan is a member of Save Our Schools and a former President of the Australian Council of State School Organisations and the ACT Council of Parents’ and Citizens’ Associations. He recently retired from the position of Professor in neuroscience at the Australian National University, but he is continuing his research on the development and prevention of myopia, spending several months a year in Guangzhou, China in the Department of Preventive Ophthalmology at Sun Yat-sen University.

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