Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Korea Tops International Tests (Again)

South Korea was among the highest performing countries in an international standardized test released today.  It took top billing in reading comprehension, third in math and fifth in science in the PISA test.

Finland, Singapore, and Hong Kong were also at or near the top in every subject. The United States, as usual, scored somewhere in the middle. 

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned in a statement, "Other high-achieving nations are out-educating and out-competing us" and said the United States needs to "urgently accelerate student learning to remain competitive."  At a televised town hall meeting, he shared the often-told tale about President Obama's lunch with the Korean president who said his biggest education challenge is that Korean parents are too demanding.

In Korea the news was mostly drowned out by the more pressing anticipated results of the annual college entrance exam, an event that warrants a four-page spread in a local newspaper analyzing which scores will lead to acceptance in which colleges.

I talked to Anthony Jackson, vice president for education at the Asia Society, to see why he thought Korea scored so well, along with other East Asian nations (including, for the first time, Mainland China through stellar results in Shanghai).

He said the top scorers tend to have some things in common:

*An emphasis on teacher quality - Hiring teachers from the top of their class, and training them well
*An emphasis on equity -- Making sure that all schools have access to quality teachers

*Longer school days and/or longer school years -- By the time they are ready for college some of these students have logged an extra year in the classroom (And were are talking about public schools, not private tutoring here.)
*Greater coordination of academic standards and higher standards for all students (In the US, it's traditionally been every locality and state for himself).

All of these are reflections of the public school system. But in Korea, A LOT of learning happens outside of school in private academies or cram schools that are attended by as many as three-quarters of the students.

He could not gauge the impact from the results, but Jackson said Korea's high rate of private schooling reflects the "societal pressure" supporting education and an "all-hands-on-deck-all-the-time" mentality that drives its success.

The Program for International Student Assessment is given to 15-year old students every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Last year it was administered to 500,000 students in 65 countries.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Addressing the equity issue would be a huge step in the right direction for the United States. Here in Virginia, as we face double digit cuts in state support for our schools, Fairfax parents are bemoaning the possible loss of total immersion programs on the elementary level. In rural Nottoway County, secondary students are down to one foreign language option (Spanish).

    How do the Koreans shield students from the impact of poverty? I know the poverty rate is much higher in the U.S. than in other OECD nations. Poverty is a consequential variable here.

    The good news for the U.S. is that we were above the OECD average in Science and Reading. Only in math did we lag behind.

  4. I definitely see a lot of government funding going into poor schools in Korea. I visited a rural school that had 13 students, but 11 staff members (including teachers) and flat screen computers in every classroom. Disparities are increasing here, though, from all the money that's spent voluntarily in after-school tutoring and private education.

  5. Missing from the reasons cited above for success of Korean students is that the curriculum itself is very effective. Longer school days and a commitment to education cannot make up for poor programs like those used in the US such as Investigations in Number, Data and Space, Everyday Math, as well as the de-emphasis on memorization and direct instruction, and reliance on small groups, student-centered classes and inquiry-based approaches. Not to mention a disdain for proper sequencing of topics and mastery of each. See http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/104502.html