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In their recent report published in February of this year, the Grattan Institute examined the school systems of several East Asian countries with a view towards drawing policy recommendations from what they learned for Australia. In the report, titled Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia (and featured in last month’s International Reads) the authors look to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Korea and Singapore and focus particularly on teacher education, professional development, and approaches to learning. It is the combination of these factors, the authors believe, that produces such impressive results whenever their students are compared to their counterparts in other countries on international assessments such as PISA.

One of the most striking findings in this report is the rate at which students in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Korea are learning as compared to their counterparts in the United States, the United Kingdom and, of course, Australia. Using the conversion rates utilized by Thompson et al. in their 2010 ACER publication, Challenges for Australian education: results from PISA 2009: the PISA 2009 assessment of students’ reading, mathematical and scientific literacy (based on OECD analysis of PISA score levels and student competencies), the authors of Catching Up were able to produce a table demonstrating how many months ahead students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Korea were compared to students in the US, the UK, Australia and the EU21. A difference in reading of 39 points represents a full year of difference in learning; the number is similar in math (41 points) and in science (38 points). Thus the difference in student learning between the 2009 PISA top performer (Shanghai) and the bottom performer (Kyrgyzstan) is six to six and a half years of learning in all three subjects.

What emerges from viewing the PISA scores in this way is it shows how far ahead students in Shanghai are, even compared to their top-performing East Asian counterparts. In mathematics, students in Shanghai are more than two and a half years ahead of the average OECD student, with students in Singapore and Hong Kong about a year behind them. Students in the UK and the US, on the other hand, lag a few months behind the average OECD student. In science, again, students in Shanghai have a huge leg up on most others: they are nearly two years ahead of the average OECD student and at least half a year ahead of the other top performers, whereas in the UK, students have just a tiny advantage over the average OECD student, while the United States remains average. Finally, in reading, Shanghai is still the frontrunner by far, but the overall gaps are smaller. Students in Shanghai are “only” about a year and a half ahead of the average OECD student, and again about half a year ahead of the next-best top performer. The United States performs better, by a handful of months, than the average OECD student, while the UK is approximately on par with average.

A common perception about education in Asian countries is that students – and particularly teenagers like those tested in PISA – spend the vast majority of their time either in school or in “cram schools” in order to compete for spots at selective universities. While it is certainly true that the culture of “cram schools” persists in these countries, the authors of Catching Up argue that it is not the extra hours spent studying that lead to these massive gaps in student achievement between East Asian countries and other OECD countries. Instead, these gaps emerge from “effective education strategies that focus on implementation and well-designed programs that continuously improve learning and teaching” (12), which are in place in the top performing countries. As evidence for this statement, they point to Hong Kong, which leaped from 17th place in PIRLS to 2nd place in just five years. Cram schools and Confucian values, they contend, cannot explain that rise.  Neither can system size; although Hong Kong and Singapore are relatively small (Singapore has just under half a million students while Hong Kong has about 700,000), South Korea has 7.2 million students and is also a top performer. Rather, Hong Kong, like Singapore and other rapidly-improving East Asian countries, took it upon itself to implement a series of effective and well thought out reforms with a focus on teacher education, teacher professionalism, and funding equity to get to the top of the pack.