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East Asians topped U.S. students again on international tests. But are their schools really better?


The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, known as TIMSS, is an assessment given every four years to students in fourth and eighth grades in dozens of education systems around the world. It was last given in 2015, and the results were just released. Here they are, as described by my Post colleague Emma Brown in this story:

Eighth-grade students across the United States showed some improvement in math and science over the past four years, but fourth-graders’ performance was stagnant and students in both groups continued to trail many of their peers in Asia, according to the results of a major international exam released Tuesday.

U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam

In fact, U.S. students have lagged on TIMSS ever since it began a few decades ago. Politicians often point to at-best average international test scores as evidence of a decline in U.S. public education — but they fail to note that U.S. students have never excelled on K-12 international assessments since the dawn of the exams.

One of the stories that is inevitably written after each international test score release is why East Asian schools are able to get their students to perform better than U.S. students. Well, in this post, the answer is a little different than you might expect. Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Kansas, argues that the schools in East Asia don’t actually do a better job.

Yong Zhao joined the University of Kansas this year as part of  the Foundation Distinguished Professor initiative, launched by the school and the state of Kansas to attract 12 eminent scholars in specific fields. He formerly was the presidential chair and professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy, and Leadership at the University of Oregon, and is the author of several books, including the co-authored “Never Send a Human to do a Machine’s Job: Correcting the Top 5 Edtech Mistakes.

By Yong Zhao

The international test known as TIMSS — formally, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study — just released its 2015 results. Within hours of the release, Google News had already collected over 10,000 news stories reacting to the results from around the world — some sad, some happy, some envious, and some confused. The biggest news is, however, nothing new: Children in East Asian countries were best at math.

In fact, they were the best 20 years ago, when TIMSS was first introduced in 1995. And they were the best in all subsequent cycles. Singapore, Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region of China), Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan are the top performers. In fourth grade, the lowest East Asian country is 23 points above the next best country, Northern Ireland, the same gap seen in 2011; in eighth grade, a whopping 48 points lead ahead of the next best country, Russia, a 17-point increase from 31 in 2011.

Much of the coverage of the new scores has been about how well the East Asian students performed — and conversation will be about what lessons we can draw from the East Asian education systems. Frankly, I am not sure what, if anything, can be learned but below are a few observations I have after a quick read of the 2015 math report. These findings are less likely to be covered by the media and talked much by pundits.

1) East Asian parents are not “very satisfied” with their schools. In fourth grade, only 7 percent of students’ parents in Japan reported that they were “very satisfied,” the lowest of all participating countries, 17 percent for Korea, 47 percent for Chinese Taipei, 55 percent for Hong Kong, and 58 percent for Singapore, all below the international average of 59 percent. The United States, Australia, and England did not have enough participation to be reported.

2) East Asian schools do not necessarily put a “very high emphasis” on academic success. According to the principals reports, in 4th grade, only 3 percent of Japanese students’ principals put a “very high emphasis” on academic success, 7 percent for Hong Kong, 11 percent for Singapore, 12 percent for Chinese Taipei, and 26 percent for Korea, compared with 19 percent for Canada, 18 percent for New Zealand, 14 percent for the United States and England, and 12 percent for Australia. In eighth grade, English schools top the world in emphasis on academic success with 26 percent of students’ principals reported so, while Japan had only 2 percent, Hong Kong 6 percent, Chinese Taipei 7 percent, Singapore 10 percent, and Korea 17 percent. The United States has 8 percent and Australia 14 percent, on par with Canada’s 13 percent. Teacher reports show a similar pattern.

3) East Asian teachers are not “very satisfied” with their jobs. In fourth grade, Japan is at the bottom with only 23 percent of its students’ teachers reporting “very satisfied,” Hong Kong is third from the bottom, with 33 percent. Singapore has 37 percent, while Chinese Taipei has 46 percent. Korea is the exception with 55 percent. Countries reporting the most “very satisfied” teachers are Iran, Qatar, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. In 8th grade, the situation seems to worsen: Japan, England, Singapore, and Hong Kong are bottom four education systems with the lowest percentage of students whose teachers are “very satisfied.” Korea is better, but not by much, with 38 percent, compared to 44 percent in the United States, 50 percent in Australia, and 57 percent in Canada.

4) East Asian students do not have a “high sense of school belonging.” Japan, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei are the bottom three with 41 percent, 46 percent and 46 percent of fourth-grade students reporting a “high sense of school belonging.” Korea is slightly better with 52 percent and Singapore with 56 percent. The international average is 66 percent. The percentage for England is 77 percent, Canada 66 percent, and the United States 64 percent. Australia has 62 percent. The eighth graders in East Asian systems follow a similar pattern.

5) East Asian students do not necessarily receive more classroom instruction compared to the United States, Australia, Canada or England. In fourth grade, for example, Korea spends the least amount of time at 100 hours, Chinese Taipei spends 128 hours, Japan 151 hours, Hong Kong 159, Singapore 201. The International Average is 157 hours. In comparison, the United States spends 216 hours, Australia 202 hours, Canada 196, and England 189 hours.

6) East Asian systems are not the top users of computers in math lessons. The top five are New Zealand, Denmark, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, and Georgia in fourth grade — and Sweden, Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Chile in eighth grade in terms of availability of computers for students to use in math lessons. Student use of Internet for schoolwork shows a similar pattern.

7) East Asian students receive the least engaging math lessons in the world. In fourth grade, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Denmark, and Singapore have the lowest percentages of students reporting that they experience “Very Engaging Teaching.” The same pattern is found in eighth grade. Only 8 percent of Korean students reported having “Very Engaging Teaching.” Japan has 10 percent, Chinese Taipei 23 percent, Hong Kong 26 percent, and Singapore 33 percent. The international average is 43 percent. Canada, the United States, England, and Australia all have more engaging lessons.

8) East Asian students DO NOT “very much like learning mathematics.” In  fourth grade, the bottom 5 countries (in reverse order) are Korea (19 percent), Chinese Taipei (23 percent), Japan (26 percent), Finland (28 percent), and Croatia (29 percent). Hong Kong and Singapore are slightly better with 35 percent and 39 percent respectively, below the international average of 46 percent. U.S. students seem to like learning math more with 42 percent and England has 50 percent of its fourth graders like learning math. In eighth grade, the similar pattern holds, with Slovenia, Korea, Japan, Hungary, and Chinese Taipei having the least proportion of students reporting “very much like learning mathematics.”

9) East Asian students have very little confidence in mathematics. Korea, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong have the lowest percentage of fourth graders reporting “very confident in math, all below 20 percent, while the international average is 32 percent. The situation is about the same for eighth graders: Japan has 5 percent saying “very confident,” Korea 8 percent, Chinese Taipei 9 percent, Hong Kong 10 percent, and Singapore 13 percent. The international average is 14 percent. Canada, Israel, Norway and the United States have the most confident eighth graders.

10). East Asian students don’t value math much. Again, four out of the five East Asian education systems are at the absolute bottom of the ranking in terms valuing math. Only 10 percent of 8th graders in Chinese Taipei, 11 percent in Japan, 13 percent in Korea, and 19 percent in Hong Kong “strongly value mathematics.” The percentage for Singapore is 34 percent, way below the international average of 42 percent. The United States is above the international average with 44 percent.

The bottom line and the big question:

So compared with most of the students who participated in the TIMMS 2015 study, East Asian students have less engaging math lessons, they spend less time studying math in schools, they like math or value math less, and they are less confident in math. So how did the East Asian students achieve the best scores?

The answer may lie outside schools. To me, the answer has to be the chopsticks, something common to all these East Asian students interact with on a daily basis. To improve math scores, we should all begin using chopsticks.