East Asia top performers: what PISA really teaches us

John Jerrim

It is no secret that East Asian children excel at school. For instance, 78 percent of ethnic Chinese children obtain at least 5 A*-C GCSE grades, compared to a national average of just 60 percent. Yet, despite some very interesting qualitative work by Becky Francis, we still know very little about why this is the case.

I explore this issue in my new paper using PISA 2012 data from Australia. Just like their counterparts in the UK, Australian-born children of East Asian heritage do very well in school – particularly when it comes to maths. In fact, I show that they score an average of 605 points on the PISA 2012 maths test. This puts them more than two years ahead of the average child living in either England or Australia. They even outperform the average child in perennial top PISA performers like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

As we all know, policymakers frequently tell us that we need to learn lessons from high-performing countries. Yet, in my opinion, it is actually more insightful to consider what is driving the high performance of East Asian children born and raised within an ‘average performing’ country such as Australia. After all, they clearly excel at the PISA tests, despite having been exposed to a western culture and education system similar to our own.

So what do my results suggest?

First, there does not seem to be a ‘silver bullet’ that explains why East Asian children excel at school. Rather, a combination of inter-linked factors are at play.

Second, I find little evidence that children of East Asian heritage simply put more effort into the PISA test. It thus seems unlikely that their high performance is a statistical artefact, or that they are more motivated to do well in the test than their British or Australian peers.

Third, school selection matters a great deal. This accounts for roughly half the achievement gap between children with East Asian parents versus those with western (either Australian or British) parents. This may partly be a reflection of culture, including the high value East Asian families place upon their children’s education (meaning they send them to the best possible school).

Finally, even after accounting for differences in family background and schools, children with East Asian parents remain one whole school year ahead of their peers with Australian (or British) parents. This is partly due to East Asian parents investing more in out-of-school tuition and instilling a harder work ethic in their children. Out-of-school factors therefore play an important role in explaining why East Asian children do so much better in the PISA test than their British and Australian peers.

What are the implications of these findings for us here in the UK? Well, every time international assessments like PISA are released, we hear about the lessons to be learned from the high performing East Asian economies. This has led to us comparing our curriculum to those in Singapore and Hong Kong, and sending delegations to observe teaching methods in East Asian schools. Yet many of the key reasons why East Asian children excel are cultural, and therefore beyond the control of schools. Therefore, what PISA 2012 really teaches us is that parents and familial culture matter a great deal, and that our middling performance in such international comparisons captures a lot more than just the ‘performance’ of our education system, teachers and schools.

Find all my latest papers at http://johnjerrim.com/

Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Education policy, International comparisons, Schools
4 comments on “East Asia top performers: what PISA really teaches us
  1. Ian Lynch says:

    78 percent of ethnic Chinese children obtain at least 5 A*-C GCSE grades,

    Has anyone checked that the Chinese sample is typical of the national sample in socio-economic terms etc? The comparison of the Chinese group with the national is only valid if the only difference is that they are ethnic Chinese and all other factors are the same. The assumption is that the difference is cultural which it could well be but there are other factors as well. Does the Chinese population have the same FSM proportions? Are “small business” families more highly represented?

    • zhongwen says:

      On the FSM among Chinese children, apparently it is a problem for the Chinese families to claim that even though they are qualified. There is a stigma attached to that. I used to do a survey for a Lib Dem Chinese group about the FSM issue. Hence, the national figures of FSM does not necessarily reflect the true reality of the qualified FSM children in the Chinese population.

  2. dodiscimus says:

    That’s a fascinating piece of research and if further research in this area continues to suggest that curriculum choices and teaching approaches do not carry the significance that tends to be attributed to them in the PISA results, that’s really important. Having said that, it is possible that part of the cultural impact is to do with work outside school which is more similar to things like repetitive practice that tend to be emphasised in analyses of schooling in high-performing jurisdications.

    The self-selecting nature of migrant groups seems to me to be an obvious issue in interpreting your results but the comparison with other immigrant groups is handled pretty convincingly in the paper (that doesn’t come through very clearly in this post).

    Very interesting – thanks.

  3. kevincooper777 says:

    As a teacher in a British boarding school with a significant number of Chinese (and Korean) students, who often do very well in Maths compared even to motivated British students, I was interested to read this. But there are not really any answers here for our scenario of higher acheiving East Asian students (I am sure repeated in boarding schools around the country). I have a few ideas, mainly involving their early primary maths education back in China / Korea / HK. But what I would be interested in knowing is whether there is an actual original genetic difference which means East Asians have a greater chance of being ‘good at Maths’…

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