The Success of East Asian Students is Explained More by Family Attitudes Than Differences in Teaching

The high performance of East Asian countries in international tests such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is often ascribed to high-quality teaching and calls have been made for Australia to imitate the policies of these countries. This campaign has been led by Ben Jensen, formerly of the Grattan Institute, and was recently taken up by Kevin Donnelly.

Jensen has been in the forefront in promoting East Asia as a model for improving teacher quality in Australia. He argues that Australia has much to learn from teacher training and mentoring in these countries and that we should adopt East Asia’s “unerring focus on teacher performance”.

Donnelly on the other hand recently claimed that chalk and talk teaching and rote learning are key features of China’s education success and that Australia has been misguided in abandoning this method of teaching.

However, both claims of better teaching in East Asian countries than in Australia are highly dubious. They ignore the fact that the results of students of East Asian parents in Australia are much higher than for students of Australian born parents and are similar to and, in some cases, even higher than those in East Asian countries. This suggests that differences in teaching are not a critical factor.

A recent study from the Institute of Education at the University of London compared the PISA results of children born in Australia of parents from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan with those of Australian students with both parents born in Australia. It found that Australian students with East Asian parents outperform those of Australian born parents in mathematics by an average of more than 100 PISA test points (equivalent to nearly three years of schooling). The average score for students of East Asian heritage in 2012 was 605 compared to 499 for students of parents born in Australia.

The results of students of East Asian heritage in Australia were statistically similar to the average score of Shanghai students (613) and significantly higher than in Hong Kong (561), Japan (536), Korea (554), Singapore (573) and Taiwan (560).

Moreover, while average PISA mathematics scores of students of Australian born parents declined substantially between 2003 and 2012, the scores of students with East Asian heritage increased significantly over the period. The scores of students of Australian born parents declined steadily from 528 in 2003 to 518 in 2006, 511 in 2009 and 499 in 2012, those of second-generation East Asian immigrants increased from 565 in 2003, to 582 in 2006, 579 in 2009 and 605 in 2012.

The study adjusted for differences in family background and schools test scores to allow for the possibility that second-generation East Asian immigrants in Australian may be a more selective group in terms of demographic characteristics. It found that children with East Asian parents remained about one school year ahead of students with Australian born parents, even when they have the same demographic characteristics and attend similar schools.

It also compared the results with those of second-generation immigrants from India, the United Kingdom and other (not high-performing) East Asian countries to determine whether the higher scores may reflect other potentially important characteristics of immigrant families such as drive, determination, and aspirations. It found that these students also achieve higher average scores than students with Australian born parents. However, the differences in these cases are largely explained by differences in observed family background characteristics; that is, no significant differences were found between the results of these students and those of Australian born parents after adjusting for family background factors.

These results suggest that some common non-school factors are associated with the higher performance of students of East Asian heritage in Australia. They succeed at least as well as their home country peers without access to their home country teachers. This suggests that teaching quality in Australia is no worse than in East Asian countries and that other factors account for the success of East Asian students. Nor is it credible to suggest that somehow these students are getting privileged access to Australia’s best teachers. There is no evidence of this, and if it were the case it would be a national scandal of huge proportions. Other factors must be important to their success.

One factor highlighted by the Institute of Education study, and many other studies of education in East Asian countries, is the long hours spent in out-of-school study and tuition by East Asian students. Data from PISA 2012 show that 65 to 70 per cent of 15 year-old students in Shanghai, Japan, Korea and Singapore participate in after school tutoring in mathematics compared to 27 per cent in Australia [OECD, What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices (Volume IV), 2013, Table IV.3.25: 355]. In Korea, 26 per cent of students spend four or more hours per week in after-school mathematics classes, in addition to individual homework and study, compared to four per cent in Australia. In Shanghai, Japan and Singapore the percentage ranges between 14 and 18 per cent.

Students in several of these countries also appear to spend more hours on homework and other study. For example, in Shanghai, students spend almost 14 hours per week on homework or other study set by teachers, and in Singapore it is nine hours, compared to six in Australia.

The study shows that this is also true for students of East Asian heritage in Australia. Data from PISA 2012 analysed by the study shows that these students spend substantially more time studying outside of school hours than students of Australian born parents – 15 hours per week compared to 9 hours for the latter.

There also appear to be different values and expectations about education amongst East Asian students in Australia. They hold high education aspirations with 94 per cent expecting to enter university compared to 58 per cent of the students with Australian born parents. According to the study, students born of East Asian parents also appear to have a stronger work ethic at school, a strong belief that anyone can succeed if they put in enough effort, and do not give up easily when met with a challenge. These attitudes reflect the very high value placed on education by East Asian parents.

The study found that hours spent in out-of-school tuition and family attitudes towards education are significant factors in the higher results of students with East Asian parents compared to students of Australian parents. These are also factors behind the similarity of results between students of East Asian parents in Australia and students in East Asian countries.

The study’s findings are consistent with those of an earlier study published in the Journal of Education Policy. In an analysis of the PISA 2009 results, it found that Chinese immigrant students in Australia and New Zealand achieve similar mathematics scores to students in Shanghai and much higher scores than non-Chinese Australian and NZ students, after accounting for differences in socio-economic status and home resources in the three countries. From this, it concluded that:

… 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. [p. 845]

Such findings refute the claims by Jensen and Donnelly that teaching policies in East Asian countries are the reason for their position at the top of international league tables. As the Institute of Education study concluded on its findings:

This brings into question whether it really is the schooling system (and associated teaching methods) in these countries that are responsible for their dominance of the PISA and TIMSS rankings. Indeed, my results suggest that making changes to the schooling system and teaching practices alone may be insufficient for Western countries to catch the top-performing East Asian nations. [p. 23]

The earlier study on Chinese immigrant students in Australia and New Zealand concluded:

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. [p. 850]

While Australia must always be willing to learn from other countries, uncritical adoption of East Asian teaching methods are highly unlikely to affect improvements in overall student performance in Australia. The priority for Australia is to focus on improving outcomes for low income, Indigenous and remote area students. This requires more funding and well designed effective programs.

Trevor Cobbold

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