Is ‘Shadow Education’ the Secret to East Asian Success?

Year after year, East Asian students rank the highest on international tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that assess mathematics, science, and reading performance of students in elementary and/or secondary schools across many countries. These international tests are conducted to gather information about how various students in different age groups and grades are performing academically. In contrast to East Asian students, US students tend to rank in the middle of the pack. Given the outstanding performance of East Asian students, policymakers and the public in the US are continuously trying to find out why US students are falling behind those in East Asia. How do East Asian students consistently outperform their peers in the US and other parts of the world? Is it because their teachers are more qualified and their schools are stronger, or are there other factors coming into play? 

Critics often attribute East Asian students’ achievement to the high prevalence of ‘shadow education’, or private tutoring and learning outside of formal school hours. A report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) revealed that 70-80% of East Asian students in Korea and Japan are engaged in private tutoring and suggests that this is the main factor leading to East Asian students’ high performance on academic tests.

It is true that many students in East Asia participate in ‘shadow education’. In East Asia, students must go through an intense and competitive process to enter top universities. As illustrated through a national survey conducted in 2007, about eight out of every ten primary and secondary students in Korea engage in some form of private tutoring in order to remain competitive in college admissions (Park et al. 2011). In Korea, parents visit instructors in private tutoring institutions called a hagwon in order to discuss their child’s performance. This involvement extends beyond simply enrolling a child in the private tutoring institution, but also includes monitoring progress, and choosing which private instructors and programs to enroll their child in (Park et al., 2011). Similarly, Japanese students participate in cram schools called juku to supplement their learning from school. With so many forms of private tutoring, how likely is East Asian students’ strong performance due to shadow education, rather than the quality of public schooling? 

Discovering the Realities of East Asian Achievement

In a chapter of the 2013 book by Hyunjoon Park titled Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying the Stereotype, Park critically challenges the argument that East Asian achievement is mainly due to private tutoring. 

First, those who highlight the heavy prevalence of private tutoring in East Asia fail to understand the global context behind shadow education. They believe that shadow education is unique to East Asia but in reality, education is becoming institutionalized. The notion of equal educational opportunity is becoming a norm in modern society as a key mechanism with which to attain social mobility. In an increasingly complex job market, students are placing greater importance on education, making the educational competition rise around the world. With this increase in competition, parents are forced to find any possible way to help their children advance educationally. Oftentimes, this means engaging in shadow education. (Mori & Baker, 2010). The percentage of students participating in tutoring, both public and private, from 2003 to 2012 has increased globally with some countries, such as Hungary, increasing their participation rate by almost 20 percentage points, overtaking the increase in East Asian countries (Park et al., 2016). People associate East Asia with its high involvement in shadow education but in reality, the increase of student participation in shadow education is a global trend. 

Park also makes it clear that critics of East Asian education ignore evidence that the prevalence of student participation in shadow education is not strongly related to the national average test scores (Baker et al., 2001). However, a study conducted in China that analyzed 7th-grade students also found that tutoring increased analytical and mathematical performance (Liu, 2012). Given these inconsistencies about the exact magnitude of the effect of students’ participation in shadow education on academic performance, it is difficult to assume a direct link between the two. 

Moreover, in Korea, high-achieving students are more likely to take shadow education to advance in their studies than low-achieving students (Baker et al. 2001). However, in another chapter of his book, Park (2013) highlights that what makes East Asian education distinctive is the comparatively strong performance of their low-achieving students compared to the low-achieving students in other countries. In other words, low-achieving students in Korea, who are less likely to take shadow education than high-achieving peers, are the secret to Korean education’s success.

Although Park (2013) challenges the common perception that East Asian educational success is attributable to shadow education, there is still more we could find out about the exact impact shadow education has had on East Asian success. We could examine how students’ performance changed before and after the expansion of shadow education and look at the possible negative effects of shadow education on mental health, stress, and anxiety.  

Why Should We Care?

Ultimately, it is important to discover the realities of East Asian education to prevent policymakers from misusing these beliefs (Takayama 2017). Western policymakers often illustrate a caricature-like view of East Asian education, with some believing that we should heavily base our education system off of East Asia, but others magnifying the shortcomings of East Asian education. Policymakers are using these common misconceptions about education in East Asia to justify reforms, without looking at a more accurate cause of East Asian educational success and failure. Ultimately, to truly learn from East Asian education, we must clear up these misunderstandings and promote their realities instead. 

Works Cited 

Baker, D. P., Akiba, M., Letendre, G. K., & Wiseman, A. W. (2001). Worldwide Shadow Education: Outside-School Learning, Institutional Quality of Schooling, and Cross-National Mathematics Achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 23(1), 1-17.

Mori, I., & Baker, D. (2010). The origin of universal shadow education: What the supplemental education phenomenon tells us about the postmodern institution of education. Asia Pacific Education Review, 11(1), 36-48. 

Park, H. (2013). Re-evaluating education in Japan and Korea demystifying stereotypes. London: Routledge.


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