Catching up: learning from the best school systems in East Asia

17 Feb 2012

Today’s centre of high performance in school education is East Asia. Four of the world's five highest-performing systems are Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai and Singapore, according to OECD’s 2009 PISA assessments of students.

In Shanghai, the average 15-year old mathematics student is performing at a level two to three years above his or her counterpart in Australia, the USA, the UK and Europe.

In recent years, many OECD countries have substantially increased education expenditure, often with disappointing results. Between 2000 and 2008, average expenditure per student rose by 34% across the OECD. Large increases in expenditure have also occurred in Australia, yet student performance has fallen.

The global economic crisis demands budget cuts. Yet education performance is vital to economic growth. As the world’s economic centre is shifting to the East, we can learn from its most effective school systems about reforms to improve our children’s lives.

Success in these four systems is not always the result of spending more money. Korea, for example, spends less per student than the OECD average. Nor is success culturally determined, a product of Confucianism, rote learning or Tiger Mothers. Only 11 years ago, Hong Kong ranked 17th in assessments of reading literacy (PIRLS) and Singapore was ranked 15th. Just five years later (in 2006) they ranked 2nd and 4th.

The report does not claim that the political and policymaking systems of East Asia can or should be reproduced elsewhere. Each country has to tailor reform to its own system and culture.

However, these four systems focus on the things that are known to matter in the classroom, including a relentless, practical focus on learning and the creation of a strong culture of teacher education, research, collaboration, mentoring, feedback and sustained professional development. These are precisely the reforms that Australia and other western countries are trying to embed in schools. Yet there is often a disconnect between the objective of policies and their impact in classrooms. The four East Asian systems have found ways to connect high-level strategy to what others have been trying to achieve in the classroom.

The role of teachers is essential: they are partners in reform. In Singapore, they are paid civil servants during their initial teacher education. In Korea they must pass entrance examinations, including classroom demonstrations, before becoming teachers. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors. New teachers have district-based mentors and two in-school mentors (one on classroom management, the other on subject content). In Hong Kong, classroom observations aim to change teacher culture and improve pedagogy. The focus is on openness to new ideas and career-long teacher learning.

These four systems are not afraid to make difficult trade-offs to achieve their goals. Shanghai, for example, has larger class sizes to give teachers more time for school-based research to improve learning and teaching. These systems are neither perfect nor universally popular. Hong Kong acknowledges that its move away from a strict examination focus has not yet persuaded most parents. Yet many countries are trying to emulate the success of these systems. Most have further to go. This report shows in detail how it can be done.

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