A Glimpse Inside Asian Education—Via the Internet

By Sean Cavanagh — June 26, 2008 2 min read
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For years, American policymakers have looked with increasing wonder and envy at high-performing nations that consistently outperform the United States on heavily publicized international tests, such as PISA and TIMSS.

And those assessments don’t even provide information about the academic prowess of students in China, a nation of 1.3 billion people. (The People’s Republic does not take part in them.)

The truth is that for politicians, researchers, journalists, and others, the school practices in many of those countries remain a mystery. It’s difficult to get reliable, firsthand information on those countries’ standards, curricula, and teaching practices—not to mention information that is available in English.

Now a new Web site offers the public a way around those cultural and language barriers.

Created by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, the site offers the public with direct links to curriculum, test items, and examples of classroom teaching in China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore, as well as Pacific Rim nations such as Australia and New Zealand. It also presents a glimpse of the common educational challenges facing those jurisdictions.

And yes, it’s all in English.

Visitors can read the translated math standards being used in Chinese schools, along with those of Japan, Korea, and other nations, They can see video demonstrations of teaching. This week, for instance, I watched an online video of a Japanese teacher leading a rather boisterous math class. As the teacher spoke, subtitles appeared onscreen, explaining the content that was being covered and what the teachers and students were saying.

There is also information on the foreign-language requirements of various nations. In addition, an American policy organization, Achieve, offers a comparison of the math and science standards across the APEC countries, examining which topics get covered most often by grade span. (My colleague Kathleen mentioned Achieve’s work on this topic in a previous post.)

The site is the work of APEC, a 21-nation organization that promotes economic development, trade, and investment across the Pacific Rim. APEC maintains the site; the U.S. Department of Education sponsors it, though the agency does not endorse or screen its materials.

Anyone can access the site. Material is added to it through a password-protected system, which allows educaton experts in various countries to submit and update information that the organization’s members, and the public at large, might find useful, said Alan Ginsburg, the chair of human-resources development at APEC, who has worked on the site. Ginsburg is also the director of policy and program studies at the Education Department.

“It’s a way for us to collaboratively build a knowledge base among APEC countries that draws upon the strengths and experiences of different education systems,” Ginsburg explained to me. “It’s also a way that we can begin to identify what our differences are.”

APEC member countries arrange to have their curricular materials and other resources translated into English, typically by a university researcher or another source. The site is rapidly evolving, Ginsburg noted, and it’s likely to include much more information in the future than it does now.

Even so, there’s already a wealth of information for anybody interested in how other nations (in some cases, higher-performing nations) are doing things.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.