Here’s why other countries beat the U.S. in reading and math

December 11, 2012

Two international tests released Tuesday show that U.S. students continue to lag behind those in many Asian and some European countries in reading, math and science. As the Post reported:

In fourth-grade math, for example, students in Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Ireland and the Flemish region of Belgium outperformed U.S. students. 

In eighth-grade science, children in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Finland, Slovenia, Russia and Hong Kong beat U.S. students.

How fourth-graders around the world stack up. National Center for Education Statistics. The Washington Post
How fourth-graders around the world stack up. National Center for Education Statistics. The Washington Post

In reading, Hong Kong, Russia, Finland and Singapore also all scored above the United States. The results were drawn from two tests -- the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, known as PIRLS, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, referred to as TIMSS. 

The United States has edged up its score over the years, and it's in the top 13 educational systems in the world, the report authors note, but Americans are still consistently outranked by the same handful of countries.

So what makes the education systems of some of the top performers so good?

Singapore:

When Singapore became independent from Britain in 1965, it was a poor, small tropical island with few natural resources, rapid population growth and no compulsory education. How it grew to become one of the world's leading financial centers and a major skilled-worker hub is somewhat of an education success story.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Singapore's government instituted the practice of streaming (or tracking) students based on their academic ability from elementary school onward. After six years of primary-school education, Singaporean students take a test that determines whether they'll be placed in a special school for the gifted, a vocational school or a special education program, and another test later determines their higher-ed options. 

In more recent years, the educational emphasis has shifted toward creative learning and school autonomy. Teacher incentives and education were also boosted, according to an OECD report on Singapore's schools.

In math, Singapore's schools teach fewer subjects in greater depth before students are able to move on. And culturally, there is no shortage of the so-called "Tiger mothers," who saddle kids with extra math tutorials and drive them to succeed.

Of course, Singapore's small size -- there are only 522,000 students and 360 schools -- means revamping its school system was "more like turning around a kayak rather than a battleship," said Professor Lee Sing Kong, director of Singapore's National Institute of Education.

Hong Kong:

Hong Kong has been consistently ranked among the top OECD countries in education, but there's actually a significant amount of dissatisfaction with the level of testing and rote memorization in the schooling system there. 

As Duke University professor Cathy N. Davidson explained for the Post's Answer Sheet blog:

Over one-third of Hong Kong residents may attend college and there are excellent post-secondary vocational alternatives for those who don’t, but the general public feels that the extreme standardization and the harsh drilling to do well on those tests makes education uninspiring and even painful. They also are concerned that it programs students to a certain kind of standardized thinking that does not suit the interactive digital world of the 21st century workplace.

The fears about over-standardization prompted Hong Kong's education ministry to create “Liberal Studies” as a compulsory subject at the secondary level in order to help students master critical thinking and creative skills. Of course, it too, would be measured with a standardized test.

Finland:

Unlike the Asian models, which emphasize rote memorization and test scores, Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play, according to education researchers who have studied the country's success.

There are no standardized tests, and the focus appears to be on equity, not competition between schools or students. There are also no private schools, but some high schools are allowed to select students on the basis of academic merit. Teaching is a high-status profession, with each teacher required to have a master's degree. Teachers are given generous pay and lots of responsibility, but there are few official metrics of accountability.

"There's no word for accountability in Finnish," Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education's Center for International Mobility, once told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. "Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted."

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Max Fisher · December 11, 2012