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

Are East Asian Students Robots?

Elementary and secondary school students in East Asia, particularly in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan — are well known for their high ranks in international standardized tests for academic performance such as PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study), outperforming their peers worldwide. Their high performance has led many to try to understand how East Asian education actually operates. But at the same time, some critics highlight the cost to East Asian education’s success for students’ academic achievement. Due to the emphasis on standardized testing and academic performance, for example, East Asian education has been considered to be weak in enhancing students’ creativity and independent thinking. A typical argument against East Asian education goes this way: Because students and teachers rely on standardized testing as a way to measure academic success, students resort to rote learning and memorization — taking in and spitting information out, just like a robot. Are East Asian students really robots? In order to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of East Asian education systems, it is vital to look carefully at how students in East Asia actually learn in their schools.

In a study comparing creativity of East Asian and US students, Kyung Hee Kim (2005) identifies three reasons as to why East Asian education may not be conducive to creativity; 1) East Asian classrooms heavily depend on rote learning and memorization; 2) The East Asian uniform and standardized school curriculum and teaching processes do not grant the teacher flexibility; and 3) the very culture of East Asian societies inhibits creativity. East Asian education systems’ exclusive reliance on standardized tests to measure a student’s academic ability leads to widespread usage of rote learning — repeating, memorizing, then spitting back out textbook information. Many believe that rote learning leaves no space for discussion in the classroom, which can be conducive to cultivation of students’ creativity and independent thinking. Moreover, critics argue, that since the government creates and maintains uniform school curricula and testing programs that span across the entire country, teachers have limited flexibility in the classroom and are even discouraged to think of creative approaches to teaching. With East Asian teachers being confined to a very specific and uniform teaching plan, their students in turn have little room for their own creative cultivation. Finally, East Asian culture places much respect for teachers. As a result, East Asian students do not ask questions or speak up in class — however, in order to become more creative, one must challenge the norm and state their own ideas instead of being submissive. 

But what is creativity? It’s a concept, an intangible and immeasurable quality that we all strive to possess. It is important to acknowledge that the definition of creativity is vague and malleable, and that we don’t necessarily have strong evidence of cross-national differences in creativity. In fact, a study suggests that we can look up the issue of East Asian students’ creativity in cross-national perspectives by utilizing the results of the problem solving skills from an interest student assessment. In 2003, students across 29 countries participated in an assessment (PISA 2003) to measure their problem solving skills. 

Given the difficulty to objectively measure creativity, the study instead used students’ ability to solve a problem as a way to compare students’ creativity across the world. On this test, the highest scoring country was Korea, ranked at #1. Finland came in at #2, Japan at #3, and the United States at #24 out of 29 countries measured, already raising huge doubts at the validity of this common perception that East Asian students are robots. 

It is not clear to what extent problem solving skills really tap into creativity. Therefore, Park (2013)’s study does not provide a definite answer to the question of whether East Asian students are more or less creative than their peers in the US and other countries. One does not need problem solving skills to be creative as many problem solving questions are more logic based, which is why problem solving may not be an appropriate measure. A different way to measure creativity would be to examine students’ creative writing since one needs an imagination and creative energy to write creatively. 

This article is not to defend East Asian education with respect to creativity. But it just highlights how difficult it is to compare the creativity of students across cultures. By simply accepting the stereotype that East Asian students are robots, we are likely to overlook the strengths of East Asian education systems where their students show higher levels of problem solving skills, even if not creativity, than students in most other countries. 



Kim, Kyung Hee. 2005. “Learning from Each Other: Creativity in East Asian and American Education.” Creativity Research Journal 17(4): 337-347.

Park, Hyunjoon. 2013. “Do Japanese and Korean Schools Make Talented Students Mediocre?” Chapter 3 in Re-Evaluating Education in Japan and Korea: Demystifying Stereotypes. London and New York: Routledge

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.