Japan's education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, pointed to the test results as evidence of success in reforms aimed at reducing class sizes — despite continued criticism of the pressure-filled university entrance examination system. Many Japanese students also attend cram schools to get an extra edge.
"Asian countries do better than European and American schools because we are 'examination hell' countries," said Koji Kato, a professor emeritus of education at Tokyo's Sophia University. "There is more pressure to teach to the test. In my experience in working with teachers the situation is becoming worse and worse."
In China, where educational inequity is deeply entrenched, Shanghai has become an oasis of high standards and generous government support. The city invests four times the national average per student.
"Shanghai is an exception, and it is by no means representative of China," said Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at the High School Attached to Tsinghua University in Beijing. "It's an international city where its residents pay great attention to education and where there are many universities."
Affluent Shanghai parents annually spend an average of 6,000 yuan ($1,000) on English and math tutors and 9,600 yuan ($1,600) on weekend lessons, Jiang has written.
Ironically, many Chinese parents — especially those with means and bemoaning the pressure their children must endure in local schools — are increasingly sending their children overseas for what they consider a more well-rounded education.
In an analysis by the Shanghai Academy of Educational Sciences, it said Shanghai students ranked the first globally in time spent on homework. On average, they spent 13.8 hours on school-assigned homework every week, far above the international average of seven hours.
Zhang Minxuan, president of Shanghai Normal University, said homework is crucial to one's learning, although its effectiveness plateaus after 11 hours, according to Shanghai Education News, a web site by the Shanghai Education Commission. Zhang, who oversaw the PISA administration in Shanghai, said PISA does not measure students' social abilities, physical health and aesthetics, and he cautioned against extrapolating to the rest of the country.
"Shanghai is one of the most prosperous Chinese cities and one of the cities with balanced education. Shanghai students' top placement in PISA is no proof of equal development of education in China," he said, as reported by Shanghai Education News. "With no denying, China's education still has a long way to go."
Associated Press Writers Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo, Kelvin K. Chan in Hong Kong and researcher Fu Ting in Beijing contributed to this report.
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