East Asian schools rank best in the world. What are they doing right?

East Asian countries claimed the top spots in a recent world educational ranking. How are they succeeding?

Christine Armario/AP
Leticia Fonseca, 16, left, and her twin sister, Sylvia Fonseca, right, work in the computer lab at Cuyama Valley High School after taking the new Common Core-aligned standardized tests in New Cuyama, Calif. The Cuyama Joint Unified School District is 60 miles from the nearest city and has Internet connections about one-tenth the minimum speed recommended for the modern U.S. classroom. Across the country, school districts in rural areas and other pockets with low bandwidth are confronting a difficult task of administering new Common Core-aligned standardized tests to students online.

A new list of global educational rankings published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has several East Asian countries at the head of the pack.

Singapore claimed the No. 1 spot, with Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan filling out the top five. The next four are European countries including the northern nations Finland and Estonia. Canada earned the 10th spot, but the US is ranked 28th – well below many less affluent countries, notably Vietnam, which came in at 12.

The study was based on test scores in math and science from 76 countries around the world. These OECD rankings differ from the think tank's more well-known PISA education rankings in that it includes less affluent nations.

“The idea is to give more countries, rich and poor, access to comparing themselves against the world’s education leaders, to discover their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to see what the long-term economic gains from improved quality in schooling could be for them,” OECD education director Andreas Schleicher told BBC News. “This is the first time we have a truly global scale of the quality of education."

By incorporating data from less affluent countries, a correlation can be seen between economic growth and educational ranking.

"Poor education policies and practices leave many countries in what amounts to a permanent state of economic recession," according the OECD report "The High Cost of Low Educational Performance," written by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann.

For example, in the 1960s Singapore had a high level of illiteracy and a struggling economy. But it has since seen a drastic improvement in both areas.

So, what are countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea doing right?

"If you go to an Asian classroom you'll find teachers who expect every student to succeed. There's a lot of rigour, a lot of focus and coherence," Schleicher said.

The success of these countries is not solely a product of a Confucian dedication to education, however, but also an investment in teachers.

"These countries are also very good at attracting the most talented teachers in the most challenging classrooms, so that every student has access to excellent teachers," Schleicher added.

All teachers in Singapore receive training from the National Institute of Education and earn competitive salaries with bonuses for high-performers. New teachers get paired with mentors, and compared to US teachers, Asian teachers typically spend less time teaching and more time preparing lessons and tutoring students, according to Pearson Education.

Despite this success, there is growing discontent about the pressure this educational model puts on students and increased interest in making students not only good test takers, but creative thinkers. To combat these issues, countries such as Hong Kong are reducing class sizes and sending teachers to Western countries to observe how teachers encourage creativity.

OECD’s report will be presented next week at the United Nations' World Education Forum. Although the 2000 goal of providing all children with a primary education by 2015 has not been achieved, the forum will set a new round of goals for the next 15 years.

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