11 February 2015
Child Education

Education Asia -- myths and realities

Asian countries have long topped the OECD's PISA survey on the state of global education. But how good really are Asia's education systems, asks John West?

Asian countries have long topped the OECD's PISA survey on the state of global education. Many commentators, especially in the US, see this trend as evidence of the rise of China and the rest of Asia, and the decline of the West. But how good really are Asia's education systems, asks John West?

Asia's education stars

Asian countries outperformed the rest of the world in the OECD’s latest PISA survey (Programme for International Student Assessment), which evaluates the knowledge and skills of the world’s 15-year-olds. PISA 2012 tested students in 65 countries and economies on maths, reading and science. The main focus was on maths proficiency, which is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults. Reading, science and problem-solving were other areas of assessment.

Shanghai (China), and Singapore were top in maths, with students in Shanghai scoring the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above most OECD countries. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macao, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands were also in the top ten performing countries. Vietnam is another Asian country that did very well at 17th place. Most leading OECD countries were lagging way behind with Germany in 16th place, France 25th and the US 37th (although if Massachusetts were a country, it would be the sixth best in the world).

Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea were the five highest performers in reading in PISA 2012, while Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Finland are the top five performers in science.

Shanghai is not of course necessarily representative of all of China, as many commentators have pointed out. It is one of China's most advanced cities, while the quality of schools in the countryside is way behind. Also, in Shanghai children of rural migrants are not allowed to attend government schools. However, unpublished results from PISA 2009 assessments in other parts of China showed a "remarkable performance", according to OECD's Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA.

How did these Asian countries do so well? According to the OECD, top performers, notably in Asia, place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encouraging them to work together, and prioritizing investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes. They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them. Children whose parents have high expectations perform better: they tend to try harder, have more confidence in their own ability and are more motivated to learn.

Rote-learning debate

Some contend that Shanghai’s success in PISA (and the success of other Asian countries) just reflects rote learning and immense drilling for tests. But according to Mr Schleicher, the most impressive performance of Shanghai’s students is actually not on the tasks that ask them to simply reproduce what they have learned, but on tasks where they need to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge creatively in novel situations. He reports that only 2% of American students can conceptualize, generalize and use advanced math in creative ways, whereas in Shanghai it is over 30%.

But not everyone is convinced by this argument. Many observers believe that East Asia's education systems do in fact emphasize rote learning, and concentrate on training students to pass exams.

In reference to China's deeply ingrained rote learning system, in 2010 former Premier Wen Jiabao said: "Students don't only need knowledge; they have to learn how to act, to use their brains ... we must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity."

At the 2014 PECC conference in Beijing, Cheng Siwei, Former Vice Chair, Standing Committee, Chinese National People’s Congress, said that Chinese students are good at passing tests, but much less good at critical thinking and creativity. He argued that China has much to learn from the West in that regard.

Liu Jinghai, principal at a Shanghai Middle School admits the feared final high school exam that gets you into college — known as the gaokao — is all simply about memorization and rote learning. "Developed countries like the U.S. shouldn't be too surprised by these results. They're just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai's and China's education system. But the results can't cover up our problems," he says.

Liu is very frank about those problems — the continuing reliance on rote learning, the lack of analysis or critical thinking — and he says the system is in dire need of reform. "Why don't Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We're not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves," he says.

“Today, to compete for educational resources, Chinese schools do all they can to outperform other schools on student test scores,” Harvard Graduate School of Education researchers Xu Zhao, Helen Haste and Robert L. Selman write. It gets worse, according to the scholars. “Test scores are used to evaluate the job performance of teachers, school principals, education administrators, and even local government officials. The pressure to outperform competitors exists at every level of the education system and is passed all the way down until it reaches the student [and] . . . produces feelings of jealousy, distrust and animosity.”

Nicola Yelland from Australia's Victoria University argues that Australia should not be looking to East Asia as a model for its education system. She notes that China's university entrance exam, the Gaokao, is the culmination of years focusing on tests and learning by rote. She also notes that in PISA 2004, Hong Kong students revealed that "they had a bad perception of their schooling with more than half claiming school had done little to prepare them for adult life". PISA does not test history, philosophy, creativity or teamwork.

Regarding problem-solving, she mentions that "Hong Kong students practice books full of examples of "problem-solving" ... you can teach problem solving strategies like the ones included in PISA". Based on her experience in Australia and East Asia, she believes that Australian students have a "far superior education experience.

Another perspective on the rote learning debate comes Keita Takayama of Australia's University of New England who said "the idea that Asian education is either doing everything right or everything wrong is overly simplistic and needs to change". He notes that "since the 1990s, many of the top-performing countries in Asia such as Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, for instance, have introduced student-centered, problem-solving and interdisciplinary teaching. Further, research suggests that some degree of rote-learning can be beneficial, especially for maths and linguistics".

Toils of Asian education

There is one key statistic in the PISA 2012 exercise that suggests that there are some other deep problems in Asian education systems. That is, the percentage of students who reported being happy at school.

Students from Indonesia were reported to be the most happy at school of all the 65 participating countries, even though Indonesia's PISA 2012 score was the second lowest of result of all the countries. Not far behind in "happy at school stakes" were Thailand at 4th, Malaysia 6th and Singapore 12th. You have to travel much further down the list to find most of Asia's PISA stars. Hong Kong was 21st, Japan 24th, and Shanghai 28th. At the very bottom of the list was Korea, one of PISA's top performers, but the country where children were the least happy of the participating countries.

It's not surprising that Korean (and some other Asian) students should be unhappy at school. These countries have a strong case of "education fever". Parents are highly ambitious to secure the high social status and prosperity for their children that comes with a good education, as well as the social status for themselves as successful parents. Some argue that children have become a mere commodity of the family, in a Confucian society based obedience to authority and the quest for social status through academic achievement.

The university entrance exam can determine the rest of your life -- where you study, where you work, who you marry, etc. So schools keep students in classes for long hours, assign large amounts of homework, and organize countless simulation examinations. Schools rank students by their test scores and rank teachers by the scores of their students.

Most students then do costly night study from an early age in private "cram" schools ("hagwon" in Korean) or with private tutors. The average Korean student reportedly works up to 13 hours a day, and sleeps only 5.5 hours a night, driven by overzealous parents and cram school industry. Korea spends 2% of GDP on cram schools and tutoring.

Studies suggest that the resultant high cost of education in East Asia is one factor pushing birth rates down so low in these Asian countries, and also driving inequality. And managing the student life is becoming a full-time job for mothers ("Tiger Mums") in some countries, such that they are discouraged from entering the workforce. Korean families sometimes separate for the child's education, with the mother and children moving elsewhere in Korea or even overseas. Now 10% of families live apart ("goose families") twice that of 2000.

One consequence is that students have poor social skills, and suffer from stress and depression. Suicide is now top cause of death among Korean youth, with the suicide rate doubling from 2001 to 2011. Over half of Korean students reportedly have suicidal thoughts this year.

Some wise words on Asia's education predicament come from Anjall A. Hazari, a Hong Kong teacher:

"We as parents need to re-examine our notion of academic excellence as being the only measure of success. And we should give more credence to developing enhanced human values in our children so they may apply themselves wholeheartedly to their various roles in society. We need to see our children as successful simply when they have done their best."

But most regrettably, these wise words have very little resonance in families captured by Asia's education fever.

Asia's education laggards

One point on which the OECD placed much less emphasis is the fact that Asian countries are also very present at the bottom of its list of 65 countries. Thailand was ranked 50th, Malaysia 52nd and Indonesia 64th (second last, ahead of only Peru). The gap between the top and the bottom of the global classroom is the equivalent of six years of learning.

Moreover, the absence of India in PISA 2012 is striking. In fact, two Indian states -- Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh -- participated in PISA 2009. Although they are among the best-performing states in India, they were ranked in the bottom three participants, along with Kyrgyzstan, for all three criteria. In particular:

-- Only 17% of Tamil Nadu students are estimated to have a level of reading literacy that would enable them to participate effectively and productively in life. And for Himachal Pradesh, it is even lower at 11%. This compares with 81% for OECD countries.

-- Only 15% of Tamil Nadu students are proficient in mathematics at least to the baseline level at which they begin to demonstrate the kind of skills that enable them to use mathematics in ways that are considered fundamental for their future development. Again, Himachal Pradesh is even lower at 12%, And these figures compare with 75% for OECD countries.

-- Only 16% of students in Tamil Nadu are proficient in science at a level that enables them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology, while in Himachal Pradesh the score is even lower at 11%. This compares to 82% for OECD countries.

But rather than using the PISA exercise as a useful tool for measuring, and tracking over time, the nation's education, the Indian government decided to blame the PISA test, which it considers to be unfair because it does not take account of India's socio-cultural milieu.

Despite the government's reaction, these very low scores square with all other indicators which suggest that India has an appalling education system.

An Asian Development Bank study showed that in 2010 Indian children had the lowest number of years schooling out of 12 leading countries from developing Asia. India's average number of years schooling (for the population aged 15 years and above) was 5.13 years in 2010. This is well below the average for "Emerging Asia" (7.05 years), and even much further below the 11.0 years of developed countries.

The results of this important ADB study would be even more damning if the ADB could have measured the quality of education, as well the quantity.

India's 5.13 years average schooling compares with the following emerging Asian countries: China's (8.36), Hong Kong (10.37), Indonesia (6.29), Korea (11.74), Malaysia (10.19), Pakistan (5.65), the Philippines (8.95), Singapore (9.19), Taiwan (11.37), Thailand (7.25), and Vietnam (6.45). Even Pakistan is doing better than India!

True, India has made much educational progress these past 40 years, but its average level of educational attainment is the same as that of advanced countries more than 6 decades ago.

An OECD study also provided a very critical assessment of access and quality in the Indian education system. True, it noted the marked expansion of the Indian education system, rising enrollments, reduction in gender disparities and progress towards the goal of universal enrollment at the elementary level.

But it also highlighted high drop-out rates, low student attendance and enrollment rates, large disparities in enrollment across states and also across minority groups, and poor test results. The Right to Education Act, complemented by other initiatives to encourage attendance, should provide a renewed impetus to raising enrollments. And introducing programs to improve the health of children is also be needed.

Further, teacher effectiveness needs to be enhanced by strengthening accountability and incentives. Problems with teacher absence endure and employment arrangements for public school teachers need to be reformed by strengthening dismissal provisions for teachers who are not performing satisfactorily.

At the same time, student-teacher ratios are high, and teachers are often required to teach children in different grades simultaneously. The government’s goal of reducing student-teacher ratios should help lift instructional quality. But teacher development pathways, including pre- and in-service training, need to be made more accessible and effective.

If India is to ever become a global superpower, it must improve the quality of its education. And there is no better way of doing that than learning from the experiences of other countries through the PISA programme.

Concluding comments

East Asia's education stars have achieved remarkable results in numeracy, literacy and scientific skills. But the emphasis on rote learning, memorization and passing tests means that critical thinking and creativity are being sacrificed. This problem must be addressed, because these countries have reached the point where innovation and creativity must become new drivers of development.

This education success has also come at great social cost. And according to many reports, these Asian students are generally not instilled with the "joy of learning" and a natural curious mind. Rather their education systems have left a bitter taste.

And while the education success of East Asia has captured the headlines, other Asian countries like India, Indonesia and Malaysia have very poor education systems which will threaten their medium term development prospects.


John West
Executive Director
Asian Century Institute
Tags: asia, education, OECD/PISA, rote learning, memorization, hagwon

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