Skip to content

Lessons From Asia’s Tiger Teachers

Students in China are out performing countries who spend far more education.

What is the Big Idea?

Chinese parents have always placed a high premium on education and now they have the numbers to show for it. Shanghai’s students scored the highest in the most recent round of math, reading and science tests conducted in 2009 by OECD’s Program for International School Assessment (PISA).

Effective strategies, proper implementation and well-designed programs are some of the reasons why Shanghai’s school system, along with Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore land firmly at the top, according to a report released earlier this month by the Grattan Institute, an Australian think tank.

Here are some of the highlights from the report:

High Performance

  • 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 US, the UK or Europe.
    • Korean students are at least a year ahead of USA and EU students and 7 months ahead of Australian students in reading.
      • Hong Kong and Singaporean students are at least a year ahead of the USA and EU students in science.
        • Between 2000 and 2009, Korea’s mean reading score improved by 15 points (equivalent to nearly 5 months learning), on top of decades of improvement. Hong Kong improved by 8 points.
          • Shanghai and Singapore participated in PISA for the first time in 2009 and ranked 1st and 5th in mean reading scores of countries tested.2
          • High Levels of Equity

            • These four systems have successfully increased performance while maintaining, and often increasing, equity. Compared to Australia and most OECD countries, a child from a poorer background in these systems is less likely to drop out or fall behind.
              • Low performing students are also better prepared for their future. The bottom 10 percent of maths students in Shanghai perform at a level that is 21 months ahead of the bottom 10 percent of students in Australia. This gap rises to 24 months in the U.K., 25 across the average of the OECD, and 28 months in the U.S.
              • High Efficiency

                • The world’s best school systems are rarely the world’s biggest spenders. Korea spends much less per student than other education systems, yet achieves far better student performance.
                  • Australian school expenditure has increased dramatically. Between 2000 and 2009, real expenditure on education increased by 44 percent. The average cost of non-government school fees rose by 25 percent. Despite this increase, Australia was only one of four countries that recorded a statistically significant decrease in PISA reading scores from 2000 to 2009.
                  • What is the Significance?

                    Experts agree that education reform is the key to keeping the U.S. competitive in the global economy. There are disagreements as to what works best, but one thing is certain: The U.S.  has one of the highest annual expenditures per student in the world – second only to Switzerland – yet its PISA scores are below average. China, on the other hand, has the lowest per student expenditure among OECD countries.

                    Factors like salaries, pension plans and working hours affect expenditures, but in general increased spending doesn’t necessarily lead to better learning.

                    So what does?

                    The Grattan Institute offers insight as to what works in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore and there are several takeaways that western countries can adopt and tailor to the needs of its own school systems. 

                    Common characteristics of high-performing systems

                    • Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t work. They attend to best practice internationally, give close attention to measuring success, and understand the state and needs of their system.
                      • Value teachers and understand their profession to be complex. They attract high quality candidates, turn them into effective instructors and build a career structure that rewards good teaching.
                        • Focus on learning and on building teacher capacity to provide it. Teachers are educated to diagnose the style and progress of a child’s learning. Mentoring, classroom observation and constructive feedback create more professional, collaborative teachers.
                        • Implementing what works

                          The four systems studied in this report have introduced one or several of the following reforms. In particular they:

                          • Provide high quality initial teacher education. In Singapore, students are paid civil servants during their initial teacher education. Government evaluations have bite and can close down ineffective teacher education courses.
                            • Provide mentoring that continually improves learning and teaching. In Shanghai, all teachers have mentors, and new teachers have several mentors who observe and give feedback on their classes.
                              • View teachers as researchers. In Shanghai teachers belong to research groups that continually develop and evaluate innovative teaching. They cannot rise to advanced teacher status without having a published paper peer reviewed.
                                • Use classroom observation. Teachers regularly observe each other’s classes, providing instant feedback to improve each student’s learning.
                                  • Promote effective teachers and give them more responsibility for learning and teaching. Master teachers are responsible for improving teaching throughout the system.
                                  • Watch this video to see these teachers in action:

                                    Content not available

                                    Shanghai is a major economic hub in China and its policymakers are committed to creating a pool of talent that is competitive and capable of solving new problems, according to the OECD. This requires students, family members and teachers to participate in the learning process. 

                                    “Typically in a Shanghai classroom, students are fully occupied and fully engaged. Non-attentive students are not tolerated. Homework is an essential part of students’ learning activities. Parents expect students to do homework every evening and are prepared to devote their family lives to their children’s studies. Students are also obliged to take part in all kinds of other activities, including at least one hour per day of physical education.”

                                    As if this wasn’t enough, four out of five students receive tutoring after school to prepare for exams. Educators are also committed to teaching the diverse migrant population of students that come from other parts of China. Migrant children makes up 21.4 percent of the student population in Shanghai.


                                    Up Next
                                    When popular culture appropriates complex scientific theories, such as quantum mechanics, Joe Schmoe opines all over the Internet. Is it worth bringing science to the mainstream?