EAST Asian countries are once again making headlines in Western media. This time it's not because of their double digit economic growth rates. Rather, it's for topping global league tables for educational outcomes. In 2012, more than half a million 15-year-old children from Asia, Europe and North America took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study. When the results were
announced, China (Shanghai) secured the top position. The top 10 countries included Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Out of 65 countries, the UK was ranked 26th in mathematics. Not so long ago, China was a laggard in secondary education even compared to some of its Asian neighbours. Therefore, its rise as the highest achiever in secondary education and that too in all fields -- mathematics, reading and science -- has surprised many.
Of course, for a country as vast and diverse as China, comparing student performance in a city like Shanghai with that of an entire country like the UK is not appropriate. A large number of Chinese children still don't participate in secondary education even in urban areas, whilst participation is universal in the UK and the US. Nonetheless, some of the variations in learning outcomes observed across the UK and China students are too striking to ignore. According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published last year, only 3% of 15-year-old European children reach the highest level of mathematics performance compared to 30% in Shanghai. Most shocking is the finding that “children of cleaners in Shanghai and Singapore outperform the sons and daughters of UK doctors and lawyers in global mathematics tests.”
The rise of quality secondary schools in East Asia has not gone unnoticed among policy makers in Europe. Worried about its “sliding” standard in secondary education, Liz Truss, the UK minister for education, has gone as far as advocating that the UK needs to look East and borrow teaching and learning techniques that are “made in China.” Her conviction took her to China last week where she inspected schools in person. Her mission is simple: develop schemes based on Chinese methods to assist school teachers in the UK.
Some doubt the PISA statistics on China as nothing more than statistical manipulation. At the same time, there is an emerging consensus that Chinese schools succeed in ensuring a basic level of mathematics competency in all children. The magnitude of gaps in mathematics learning that have opened up between East Asian and some European countries is very large. According to one estimate, children in Shanghai and Singapore are, respectively, three and two years ahead of their peers in the UK.
At the heart of China's education revival is the renewed focus on teacher quality. The shortage of trained and effective teachers in developing countries has been also highlighted by this year's Unesco report on Education for All as a global problem. China succeeded not only by filling this gap and hiring right teachers to educate children, the institutional mechanism was also there to hold teachers accountable. Chinese teachers have to ensure that they assist children who fall behind in terms of performance, irrespective of whether they belong to a small group or a large classroom.
Whilst the UK, still praised by many Bangladeshi parents for its “world class” school system, is keen to learn from East Asia's recent success, these developments have not caused any debate in Bangladesh. The reason is quite obvious -- Bangladeshi schools do not participate in any international assessment exercises similar to the PISA test. This is not because our vernacular secondary schools are performing
too satisfactorily to require outside inspection. If anything, facts suggest the opposite. Take for instance the 2012 ISAS report prepared by the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education of the Bangladesh government. According to the report, as high as 22% of our secondary schools are either performing poorly or not performing at all in terms of overall performance. No action was taken against these schools so, a year later, follow-up assessment returned a similar percentage of non-performing schools. Performance gaps are even bigger when rural-urban comparisons are made. This is consistent with existing independent assessment of rural secondary schools in Bangladesh. Even in rural areas, test scores vary by a bigger margin between children of poor and non-poor parents.
Bangladesh has already forged an effective development partnership with China in many areas and is actively seeking Chinese support to bridge our infrastructure deficit. We should extend this policy of “look East” to education management as well by borrowing good teaching and learning practices from the region. When a country like the UK
takes China seriously, educationist and policy makers in Bangladesh can't overlook this regional success story. Of course, in many ways our education challenge is complex. In addition to the problem of low quality, enrolling children in secondary schools remains outside the choice set of most Bangladeshi factory workers and cleaners. To make matters worse, we have an even a bigger problem, poor quality, in the primary education sector. Regardless of what the main policy priority for Bangladesh is, we should continue regional exchange of ideas for educational development. Like the UK, Bangladesh too can benefit by studying Chinese schools to address gaps in the education system.
The writer is a Professor of Economics at Malaya University, Kuala
Lumpur, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.