Catching Up: Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia

Last December’s PISA results released a cacophony of opinions, commentaries, and best-practice analyses on what America can learn from the world’s high achievers. This report from Australia’s Grattan Institute is a welcome melody amidst the clamor. It explores the key traits of four of the world’s highest-performing (and fastest-rising) education systems—Hong Kong, Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore—and explains what other countries (the U.S. included) might learn from them. The answer isn’t “more testing.” These high-achieving systems focus on strong teacher-induction and -mentoring programs, quality principal preparation, and school autonomy. They all have strong central curricula—the cornerstone to reforming teaching, according to the Hong Kong Education Bureau’s deputy secretary. Also notable is the acceptance of trade-offs in each system. Teachers in Shanghai, for example, spend much less time in the classroom—and more in lesson prep—than educators in most other nations. (For context, they spend nearly twenty fewer hours a week on instruction than U.S. teachers.) On the other hand, they teach about forty pupils per class. The report’s most trenchant addition to comparative-education literature, however, is perhaps its most obvious: The authors reason that the four systems excel not because of the policies they enact but because of how good they are at implementingthem in actual schools. Add this to your library of international comparative analyses—it’s well worth the citation.


Ben Jensen, Amelie Hunter, Julie Sonnemann, and Tracey Burns, Catching Up: Learning from the Best School Systems in East Asia (Australia: Grattan Institute, 2012)

Lisa Gibes
Lisa Gibes is a Research Intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute