GET SCHOOLED: AMERICAN VS. ASIAN EDUCATION SYSTEMS


“Tick, tock. Tick, tock.” As the hands of the clock on the wall above slowly inch towards giving them ultimate freedom, the characters in High School Musical 2 can’t help but stare at them, already wistfully dreaming of summer. Throwing their papers into the air as the school bell finally rings shrilly and signals the end to their school day and year, the characters move into a full-blown song and dance number called “What Time Is It?”. High school movies like this one have faced good-natured slack for not providing an accurate depiction of high school in America because unfortunately, most students don’t jump onto tables and suddenly start singing and dancing at any high school. Regardless, in terms of the basic elements that make up the education system including extracurriculars, free-time, the school structure, advanced classes, and average student success, these movies actually mirror real life in America. If we look towards the East, however, school couldn’t be more different.

Take your regular school day in America. Then, add about 3 hours. Keeping students in the classroom far longer than their American counterparts, schools in Taiwan and Shanghai, China, for example, have between 9.5 and 9.8 hour school days. Additionally, while Japan’s school day may officially end at a similar time as American ones, Japanese students typically enroll in a gakudo, an after-school program where they continue learning into the evening. Finally, as “cram schools” pull at Korean students and take up their evenings, they often stay at school for up to 12 hours per day. 

Emphasizing the “all work and no play” mentality of Asian students, an Asian-American high school principal in California shared that when she had attended high school in South Korea, she had 6-day school days, entering the building at 7am every day and exiting the campus at 10pm on weekdays and at 2pm on Saturdays. Additionally, because of the lack of free time after school, her fellow Korean students and herself didn’t participate in extracurricular activities. If someone excelled at sports or arts, they would attend programs dedicated to molding the best in those fields and activities. For example, a friend of hers played basketball, so that friend would play basketball for 8 hours per day at school. Of course, this source attended high school years ago, but the idea of long school days and a lack of free time still stands true in South Korea today. 

At first glance, Western and Asian education systems seem somewhat similar in regards to their curriculums. In Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China, the curriculum includes Language Arts, Health and Physical Education, Social Studies, Arts and Humanities, Mathematics, Science and Technology, and Integrative Activities. To the majority of students in the USA, these subjects sound familiar. However, many Asian countries like Korea and Japan also mandate the instruction of Moral Education, teaching students about safety and environmental issues and how to lead a life of discipline, courtesy, and confidence while always employing manners and etiquette. Additionally, while American schools only have to answer to state requirements, the curriculum in Asian countries is decided at the federal level. 


Differing in more than just school structure, Asian and American education systems are also built on different perceptions and expectations of their students. While classes at different levels ranging from Advanced Placement to those where the students are considered “low-performing” are prevalent in America, these different levels aren’t present in Asian schools. Rather, the Asian education system instructs their students with one governing philosophy in mind: that every student has the ability to succeed academically and meet high expectations. If a student falls behind in class or struggles with a particular subject in Asia, then they’ll receive all of the resources they need — including excellent teachers, tutors, and additional materials — to catch up to their peers. 

For example, in Singapore, the results of a mathematics and literacy assessment given to first graders point educators towards the students that may need more assistance, and from there, these first graders receive additional and better teachers, especially those who are apt at teaching struggling students. In order to get the students to where they are expected to be, these teachers meet with them before school, after school, and sometimes on Saturdays. Similarly, low-income and moderate-to-high-income schools in Shanghai work together so that the low-income students receive the same curriculum and excellent instruction while in Japan, low-performing students receive tutoring, homework-help, and better connections with the school system through university students’ subsidized volunteer work. 

Instead of holding every student to the same high standards and simply giving struggling students more support like what is done in Asia, American schools differ in that they separate “low-performing” students from “high-performing” ones and teach the former less advanced subject matter while placing the latter in advanced classes. While the benefit of “ability-grouping” could be that students feel more comfortable in their classes, we have to consider what it would be like if America adopted an Asian approach to education. Perhaps, students would have higher self-esteem, knowing that even though they struggled initially, they were able to succeed in the end to the same level as their peers. And maybe, these students would also feel more cared for by their teachers considering that these teachers would be putting in long hours to help get them up to speed, forming closer, valuable relationships.

Without analyzing the results of these education systems, our comparison of Asian and American schools wouldn’t be complete. Based on the 2016 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, less than 5% of 15-year-old students in Hong Kong, Shanghai, South Korea, and Vietnam fell below the “basic-proficiency level” in science, reading comprehension, and mathematics while 12% of students of the same age in America failed to meet that same proficiency standard. Similarly, while America’s average student ranks the lowest in performance when compared to all 64 countries analyzed by the OECD in 2016, East Asian countries like China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, all ranking in the OECD’s top ten in terms of student performance, have a high average student performance. However, what an American student lacks in test scores, they make up for in confidence, persistence, and an inclination to follow their own dreams instead of pleasing others. Due to grade inflation that resulted in 30% of American students receiving As and American teachers tending to encourage mistakes, students in America tend to take more risks and leaps of faith concerning their academic and career paths compared to Asian students who prize always making the right choices and avoiding mistakes. 


Patriots through and through, there are Americans who continue to called the USA the #1 country in the world even as our students don’t excel at language arts or mathematics as much as those in other countries. Since students and the younger generation are the future of our country and world, it’s imperative that we rework our priorities, placing students at the top. While the previous administrations have attempted to do so with policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, these have ultimately failed in truly supporting students and helping them learn since it forced teachers to teach to the test instead of allowing teachers to spend more individualized time with students in need of assistance. The USA could learn from Asian countries in this regard and would benefit from adopting an outlook similar to theirs that every student can succeed at a high level if given the resources they need, allocating more instruction and support to struggling students while still teaching these students the same curriculum. 

However, this isn’t to say that Asian schools are perfect and that America is completely failing its students. Even though Asian students test well and learn loads while in school, they face intense academic environments and pressure and don’t have opportunities to explore interests or learn about who they are outside of school. Their schedules afford essentially no free time, preventing these students from learning that their grades don’t determine their worth, something that American teachers try to ingrain in their own students early on. In America, students get to be more than just students, partaking in extracurricular activities and hobbies, instead of just focusing on academics, which is essential for personal growth and maturity. Thus, it’s all about balance. Through using positive elements of both American and Asian education systems such as more resources for struggling students, encouragement for students to find their passions outside of academics, and an elimination of ability grouping, we can create a new type of education system that surpasses the rest, allowing students to grow into the best versions of themselves both professionally and personally.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

We have grown since then, putting out bimonthly issues (we are contributor powered: apply to write for our next one!), and weekly reviews of culture, and news that is important to us.

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We do not claim to speak for all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. We are just here to give them a place to speak for themselves.

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