Several East Asian countries and cities achieved the top mathematics, reading and science results for 15 year-old students in the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released in December.
Shanghai’s average mathematics score was 2½ years of learning above Australia’s and it was 1½ years ahead in reading and science. Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are 1½ to two years ahead in mathematics and about six months to a year ahead in reading and science.
Yet, these cities and countries spend less per student than Australia. While student-teacher ratios are higher in some areas than Australia, they are lower in others.
It is claimed that teaching quality is higher in East Asia, but pre-service requirements and teacher qualifications are broadly similar to Australia. Participation in professional development is higher in some areas than Australia, but lower in others.
The claim of better teaching in East Asia is discounted by the fact that East Asian students resident in Australia also achieve at very high levels with Australian teachers.
One important lesson for Australia from the PISA results is that they show it is possible to lift the performance of disadvantaged students. Disadvantaged students in East Asia achieve much better mathematics results than in Australia. In Shanghai, they are over two years ahead of disadvantaged students in Australia and a year or more ahead in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. However, achievement gaps between rich and poor in East Asia are similar to, or even larger than in Australia.
East Asian countries/cities appear to give greater priority to the educational resources available to disadvantaged schools than Australia. For example, student-teacher ratios in disadvantaged schools are lower than in advantaged schools in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore but are not in Australia (and Shanghai).
Disadvantaged schools in Australia suffer greater teacher shortages compared to advantaged schools than in East Asia. Australia has the second largest teacher shortage gap between disadvantaged and advantaged schools of the 65 countries participating in PISA. It is much larger than in the Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
East Asian countries/cities also give more priority to the equitable allocation of other educational resources (textbooks, science laboratories, information technology and libraries) between disadvantaged and advantaged schools. There is little to no difference in the resources available to disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Australia has one of the largest gaps favouring advantaged schools of all the countries participating in PISA.
However, there is a dark side to the East Asian results which must be avoided at all costs by Australia. East Asian students’ lives are dominated by an obsession with education success.
Cram schools are big business in East Asia. Some 65 to 70% of 15 year-old students in Shanghai, Japan, Korea and Singapore participate in after school tutoring in mathematics compared to 27% in Australia. In Korea, 26% of students spend four or more hours per week in after-school mathematics classes compared to 4% in Australia, in addition to individual homework and study.
About 40 to 55% of East Asian students also participate in after-school tutoring in their own language and science and 50 to 70% participate in other subjects compared to Australia where only 15% participate in science tutoring, 20% in language and 26% in other subjects.
There are growing official concerns in these countries about the toll of the obsession with education success and the long hours of study it involves. It dominates the lives of children from a young age to the detriment of their all-round development. It emphasises rote learning over thinking and creativity. It is exacerbating social inequalities because less well-off families cannot afford private tutoring.
The long hours indoors studying from an early age have also led to an epidemic of myopia. For example, about 90% of children completing secondary school in Korea are short-sighted and need glasses compared to about 30% in Australia. Around 20% of Korean students have high myopia which can lead to irreversible loss of vision or even blindness later in life. It presages a major long-term health problem in these countries.
Thus, Australia should emulate East Asia by doing more to improve school outcomes for disadvantaged students, but it would be incredibly silly to emulate the East Asian obsession with cramming and the social cost it incurs.
This article was orginally published in the February issue of Australian Teacher Magazine.