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East Asian pupils' PISA success not just about schools, says research

Much of the phenomenal success of East Asian pupils in international education rankings cannot be explained by the quality of their school systems, according to new research published today.

The London University Institute of Education study shows that East Asian pupils who are second generation immigrants in Australia perform better than almost everyone else in the world despite being taught in an “average” ranking education system.

The findings pose serious questions for governments in countries such as the UK who have placed a major emphasis on trying to learn from East Asian pedagogy, organising expensive teacher exchange programmes with China.

The OECD, which produces the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, has also encouraged the world to learn from schools in Asia.

But John Jerrim, author of the new research, said: “Western policymakers should not expect there to be an easy way to replicate East Asian students’ extraordinary educational success.

"The reality is that this may only be possible over the very long-term, requiring a cultural shift where all families instil a strong belief in the value of education amongst their children (along with the realisation that hard work and sacrifice may be needed to achieve it).”

He took the results of 15-year-old pupils in Australian schools who participated in the 2012 Pisa maths tests and picked out those of children of immigrants from East Asian countries that perform well in Pisa.

Test scores from the pupils, mostly with Chinese backgrounds, showed that on average they were two-and-a-half years ahead of teenagers with two Australian parents and more than two years ahead of children of immigrants from the UK.

The results meant that as a group the East Asian pupils educated in Australia’s schools outperformed every other participating school system in Pisa including Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea – ranked second to fifth place respectively.

Only Shanghai bettered the Australian East Asian performance and only by a marginal amount. Yet overall the Australian schools system that educated them was ranked 19th, just above the average.

Dr Jerrim’s research does not uncover a single “silver bullet” to explain this success.

But using background questionnaires completed by pupils taking the Pisa test he calculated that family background factors such as parental education accounted for nearly 20 per cent of the achievement gap between children of East Asian immigrants and those with two Australian-born parents.

A combination of out-of-school factors and personal characteristics accounted for another 25 per cent of the Pisa score gap. The East Asian pupils spent a lot more time studying after school - 15 hours a week compared to nine hours for “native Australian” teenagers.

They were also more likely to believe that hard work would lead to success – although there was no evidence that they had put more effort into the Pisa test – and they had higher aspirations.

The analysis revealed that a further 40 per cent of the gap, the equivalent of a year’s school progress, was accounted for by school factors.

“I found that, on average, East Asian families send their children to ‘better’ schools than native Australians do,” Dr Jerrim said. “A range of school effects (including the positive influence of fellow pupils as well as the quality of the school) form a key part of the reason that East Asian children in Australia are doing so well.”

He said the remaining 15 per cent of the gap between “native Australians” and their East Asian classmates could be down to the quality of primary or pre-school education they received.  “East Asian children may also be gaining access to higher quality teachers within schools or have higher inherent ability,” he said. “The influence of such factors remains an important area for future research.”

The study can be found here from 9am.

Related stories:

Ministers to fly in Chinese maths teachers to boost standards in England's schools March 12 2014

Pisa: East Asia dominates top of rankings December 3 2013

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