A strong culture of accountability among parents, students and other stakeholders in the education system in Asia led to stellar performance in international assessments, a new report has revealed.
Asian countries - led by South Korea, followed by Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong - came out top in the Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, published in the Learning Curve 2014 report, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit and published by global learning company Pearson, which compares the educational attainment of 39 countries.
Finland dropped to 5th from the top spot mainly because of decreases in its reported reading, maths and science literacy. Britain, Canada and the Netherlands are also among the top 10 in the index based on countries' scores in four major assessments: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study; the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study; the Programme for International Student Assessment and the initial output from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which looks at cognitive skill levels across the population.
Indonesia was ranked bottom in the index, preceded by Mexico and Brazil.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD's deputy director for education, is quoted as saying that the testing regimes in Asia help shape a system in which "there is a clear understanding of what counts".
"The clarity of goalposts and alignment of the instructional system with them is more important than high-stakes testing, and something we can learn from the Asian systems."
Michael Barber, a former education adviser to the British government and now Pearson's chief education adviser attributes Asia's success to factors such as investment in education, the elevation of the role of teachers, and "a culture of accountability that holds parents and students equally autonomous and accountable for their own success".
But high test scores alone are not sufficient for a country's growth. Inculcating a broad range of skills is important for national economic development, notes the report, which also points to the importance of non-cognitive skills, namely communication, working in teams and problem-solving skills, which have been identified by educationalists as "21st century skills".
Barber says: "As an example, although South Korean school students score highest overall in the [Programme for International Student Assessment], in adulthood their skills tend to test on par or below average compared with global peers, according to the OECD. Adults whose subsequent employment or training opportunities don't make full use of their skills lose them more quickly than those who use them to their full extent in the course of their work. Therefore, it is vital that governments put the structures in place to slow the decline of skills in adults, irrespective of the position they hold on the index - skills need to be used continuously if they are to be retained."
The report also advocates fostering a culture of learning and understanding the value of bettering oneself earlier.
"It is almost an imperative that people upgrade skills, but it is not working where the foundations are missing. You need both. You need an incentive system that encourages people to invest in skills," says Schleicher. firstname.lastname@example.org