Can’t East Asian Education Produce World-leading Students?

Today is Thanksgiving. I am sitting in the living room and my mom is making dinner in the kitchen. “I am glad that I sent my daughters to the United States. This is the best decision I have ever made. If they studied in China, they will not be as successful”, I heard my mom talking with my aunts. I couldn’t remember how many times I heard my mom, who is a typical old generation Chinese, criticizing the Chinese education system or in general, the East Asian education system. From my personal experience, my mom is not the only one that thinks the East Asian education system is not as successful as that of the US. 

“Yes, average East Asian students are doing well, but they cannot be world-class students”. This is a common criticism against East Asian education. The highly uniform curriculum and standardized instruction in East Asia are considered not to offer the chance for talented students to move on to more advanced levels than average students whom the typical school curriculum is geared toward. In contrast, the US education system is appraised to allow students with varying learning abilities and interests to take courses of different levels.  It is considered as a strength of US education to provide customized learning opportunities for talented students as well as academically struggling students, which helps produce top leaders in economy, technology, and other fields.

An educational system can boast a high level of academic performance on average like what East Asian students show in international achievement tests such as Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). However, the high average score may not be always desirable if top students regress to the mean. Does the standardized system of East Asian education really hurt top students? What do we know about cross-national differences among top students in each country besides corresponding differences in average scores? 

In his book on Japanese and Korean education, sociologist Hyunjoon Park (2013) provides another point of view on this issue by comparing the performance of students in East Asia and the US on the PISA and TIMSS tests conducted in 2000 and 1999, respectively. PISA randomly chooses 15-years-old students from countries around the world and TIMSS tests 8th-grade students to assess their mathematics and science skills. The national average scores of Japanese (579) and Korean (587) students in the TIMSS 1999 mathematics test are both higher than that of the United States (502). Note that the average score difference between Korea and the United States is 85 points. The average score of the Netherlands, a country that is praised for its education quality, is 540. The difference in the average score between the US and Korea is almost double that between the Netherlands and Korea (47). A similar pattern of cross-national differences is also shown in the PISA 2000 test, which again emphasizes the overall academic success of East Asian education. 

What is more significant, however, is the score of top and bottom students.  In the TIMSS 1999 test, Japanese and Korean students at the top 10% scored  676  and 684 points,  higher than their US peers (611 points). In the PISA 2000 mathematics test, Japanese and Korean students at the top 10% ranked 1st and  4th, respectively, among 31 countries. In short, there is no evidence to conclude that talented students in East Asian countries are harmed by the standardized education system. Rather, one can even say that talented students in East Asian countries are actually more successful than those in the US. 

But more interesting from Park’s study (2013) is that not only the top East Asian students are successful, but East Asian students at the bottom of the score distribution are also performing better than their corresponding US counterparts. Among students at the bottom, the score differences are even greater than corresponding cross-national differences among the top students. In TIMSS 1999, Japanese students at the bottom 10% scored 475 points, whereas  US students at the bottom 10% scored 387 points. The average score difference is 88 points, which is higher than that among students at the top 10% (65 points). Korean students at the bottom 10% even scored 482 points, 95 points higher than the score of US students at the bottom 10%. Similar findings are also found in PISA 2000. The differences indicate that East Asian education not only helps talented students but also helps the bottom students when compared to the United States. 

Of course, Park’s (2013) research may not offer a full picture of East Asian education. To fully analyze the effects of East Asian education across elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels, more studies are needed. In particular, a study that compares the achievements of graduated students in different countries in the workforce may be more convincing than comparing the test scores. In this article, I do not mean to say that the East Asian education system is better than the US system or vice versa. There are both strengths and limitations for every education system. I just want to highlight that there is evidence enough to arouse a question about people’s long-standing criticism against East Asian education. In addition, to keep criticizing East Asian education’s various limitations and problems, we should also try to understand how the East Asian education system is helping academically struggling students without necessarily hurting top students. 


Park, Hyujoon. 2013. Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying Stereotypes. London and New York: Routledge

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