Asia was the big story when the latest global school report card was released a few months ago. Of the 65 countries and provinces that participated in OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science, most of the top scorers in all three subjects were Asian countries and provinces. Shanghai and Hong Kong SAR in China led the way, followed by Singapore, Korea, and Japan.
As the PISA results indicate, nowhere is the rapidity of educational change and improvement greater than in Asia. How have Asian school systems managed to produce such high achievement? It’s tempting to ascribe this success to culture, but, though a high cultural value placed on education is a useful asset on which to build, a generation ago these systems had only weak education systems or schools for just the elite. Nor do all Asian systems produce superior performance. Much of South and Southeast Asia, for example, does not compare well on international education benchmarks. And while Shanghai has produced world-class performance and shows what the education potential of China could be, large disparities in academic performance currently exist between different regions of China.
While there is no one “Asian” way to academic success, the high-performing Asian school systems do share some common characteristics:
• Commitment to the centrality of education for driving economic growth. Political leaders understand the essential link between education and economic development in a global knowledge economy. This conviction has ensured a constant dynamic focus on education over more than two decades that has allowed these systems to keep moving forward despite periodic changes in political leadership.
• Clear rigorous standards and aligned systems. Asian systems establish high academic standards and a demanding core curriculum, especially in math and science, which clearly define the content to be learned. Local education decision makers have increasing autonomy, but it’s within a coherent framework of curriculum and examinations/assessments that drive textbook content, teacher preparation, and professional development. Thus, there is more consistent implementation of education policies and practices across schools that results in strong overall performance.
• High-quality teachers and principals. These systems recruit from among the top high school and college graduates and have comprehensive approaches to training, compensating, developing, and evaluating teachers. Teachers are highly qualified in their subjects — for example, in math and science — and there often are specialist math and science teachers in elementary schools. Classrooms in these Asian systems are much more open to routine observation by peers, principals, and student teachers. Regular teacher study and research groups make the improvement of teaching in a school a collective professional effort. Principals are carefully selected and trained from among the best teachers. All of this attention to human capital creates tremendous capacity at the point of education delivery — the classroom.
• Investment of resources where they make a difference. In line with their commitment to meritocracy, these systems invest resources in ways that make a difference to educational equity, whether through providing early intervention classes, pairing strong schools with weaker schools, rotating teachers and principals to improve weaker schools, or rewarding schools that improve performance. As a result, there is less variation in achievement between schools and less connection between the social background of students and their educational achievement. These systems demonstrate that it’s possible to have both excellence and equity.
• Time and effort. With longer school years, often longer school days, and large amounts of time devoted to studying outside school, Asian students often have the equivalent of two more years of schooling than the typical American student by the time they finish high school. Underpinning these education systems is the belief, reflecting the Confucian tradition, that hard work and effort pay off, and students are expected to study hard both in and out of school. The immense social mobility for families that has been brought about by educational expansion reinforces this commitment to student effort in developing knowledge and skills.
• Learning systems with a global orientation. The design of these education systems owes a lot to lessons from other parts of the world. Focused use of international benchmarking and adaptation of best practices have enabled them to continually learn and improve. They foster a similar global outlook among teachers, principals, and students.
Despite this impressive achievement of excellence combined with equity, there are widely acknowledged weaknesses in these Asian systems. These include the excessive amounts of time devoted to preparation for public examinations and the sense that they are stronger at knowledge transmission than the kind of “learning to learn,” problem solving, and critical thinking that will be needed to prepare students for today’s rapidly changing world. For this, Asian systems look to the United States and other countries for ideas on cultivating innovation and creativity.
High performance on international assessments is not limited to Asia. Canada in North America and Finland in Europe also produce high performance on PISA with rather different education structures. However, just as economists and business leaders have been following the economic rise of Asia for close to three decades, American educators can’t afford to remain ignorant of the growing educational strength of Asia, a part of the world that is dramatically increasing its significance in the 21st century. Although the specific details of each country’s education system remain particular to it, the larger lessons from Asia’s journey to educational excellence can be generalized to other settings. Success requires a clear vision and belief in the centrality of education for students and the nation, persistent political leadership and alignment between policy and practice, a focus on building teacher and leadership capacity to deliver reforms at the school level, ambitious standards and assessments, broad support in the population, and a meritocratic culture of continuous improvement and future orientation that benchmarks educational practices against the best in the world.
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