Why do East Asian children perform so well in PISA? An investigation of Western-born children of East Asian descent

Autor(es): Jerrim, John

Organisation(s): University of London. Institute of Education

Date: 2014

Pages: 54 p.

Serie: Department of Quantitative Social Science working paper

Series Volume: 14-16


A small group of high-performing East Asian economies dominate the top of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. This has caught the attention of Western policymakers, who want to know why East Asian children obtain such high PISA scores, and what can be done to replicate their success. In this paper the author investigates whether children of East Asian descent, who were born and raised in a Western country (Australia), also score highly on the PISA test. He then explores whether their superior performance (relative to children of Australian heritage) can be explained by reasons often given for East Asian students’ extraordinary educational achievements. The results suggest that second-generation East Asian immigrants outperform their native Australian peers in mathematics by more than 100 PISA test points – the equivalent of two and a half years of schooling. Moreover, the magnitude of this achievement gap has increased substantially over the last ten years. Yet there is no ‘silver bullet’ that can explain why East Asian children excel academically. Rather a combination of factors, each making their own independent contribution, seem to be at play. Western policymakers should therefore appreciate that it may only be possible to catch the leading East Asian economies in the PISA rankings with widespread cultural change.

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