According to Pearson’s 2015-2016 findings, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore rank as the top three education systems in the world. Education systems are evaluated using international assessments such as PISA, PIRLS, and TIMSS. These results are paired with an assessment of literacy rates and graduation rates across each country.

Among the 196 countries that exist worldwide, education policy differs on a range of issues: the age when children must enter school, the age when children must leave school, whether education is a fundamental right, how education is funded, how resources should be allocated among schools, what to include in the curriculum, and what the process should be for training and hiring educators.

Outlined below are a few key highlights from each of their successful systems. If you’re currently employed by or currently being educated at a school within these regions, I’d love to know your perception of the education system as a whole.

If anything I’ve outlined is a misrepresentation of the environment as you know it, I welcome your feedback and correction.

Number One: South Korea

  • Education Expenditures: 4.6% of GDP
  • Size: larger than Indiana, smaller than Pennsylvania
  • Population: 50,924,172
  • Obesity (Adult Prevalence Rate): 6.3%
  • Government: presidential republic
  • Languages: Korean & English
  • Ethnic Groups:  Homogenous

In South Korea, high school students attend classes from 8am-9:30pm. Some schools are open until midnight so that students can access facilities and resources. There are 13 subjects covered during the semester, and homework is given during summer and winter breaks. Students may also be required to do journal writing daily. The entrance exam for university schooling is typically eight hours long. It is not uncommon for high schoolers to eat dinner at school.

South Korea regularly integrates technology into the classroom and is characterized by a commitment to rigid academic standards. Some schools require educators to perform home visits, in which they check in on students during their time away from school.

The certification process for new educators is described as “rigorous,” and there is a lottery system among schools that requires all staff (teachers, Assistant Principals, and Principals) to be re-assigned to a different school district during their tenure. Educators are revered and instructors are referred to as “Teacher.” During primary education, first and second graders attend school for a half day only.

Physical Education is embedded within the curriculum, but recess is not offered. School lunches are served by parent volunteers, and students are required to take care of the school by helping to clean bathrooms, classrooms, and hallways.

Number 2: Japan

  • Education Expenditures: 3.8% of GDP
  • Size: smaller than California
  • Population: 126,702,133
  • Obesity (Adult Prevalence Rate): 3.5%
  • Government: parliamentary constitutional monarchy
  • Languages: Japanese
  • Ethnic Groups: Japanese (98.5%), Korean (0.5%), Chinese (0.4%), Other (0.6%)

In Japan, class sizes in elementary education hover at around 30-40 students per class. Compulsory education is required from age 6 to 14, for a total of 9 years. Courses are typically 45 minutes long, even at the high school level. Fifth/sixth grade curriculum includes life skills such as sewing and cooking. Comparable to South Korea, children are required to clean their own classrooms, corridors, gyms, and common rooms.

Education is designed to develop a pupil’s mind, body, and personality. This philosophy of education is communicated through a focus on living in harmony with the world. Children are responsible for preparing the midday meal for the other students in the school, and there’s a rotation system so that all students have an opportunity to cook and serve the meal.

It is not uncommon for children to commute to school in groups, often walking together with peers of varying ages. Certain street signs even contain markers to denote that a particular route is frequently used by young pedestrians. Extra emphasis is placed on moral education, and there is a cultural expectation to embody respect.

In order to foster an appreciation for life and an ethos of caring, some schools require students to take turns taking care of the school pet. Towards this end, students are grouped into committees and shifts are assigned. This task is meant to help foster unity, and to put the mind, heart, and body in harmony.

Number 3: Singapore

  • Education Expenditures: 2.9% of GDP
  • Size: slightly more than 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.
  • Population: 5,781,728
  • Obesity (Adult Prevalence Rate): 6.8%
  • Government: parliamentary republic
  • Languages: Mandarin (official, 36.3%), English (official, 29.8%), Malay (official, 11.9%), Hokkien (8.1%), Cantonese (4.1%), Tamil (official, 3.2%), Teochew (3.2%)
  • Ethnic Groups: Chinese (74.2%), Malay (13.3%), Indian (9.2%), Other (3.3%)

In Singapore, twenty percent of the national budget is devoted to education. Educators and administrators embrace technology because they believe that it creates a more engaging atmosphere for students. Perhaps somewhat ironically, instruction is highly scripted and designed to be uniform across all subjects and levels. Pedagogy and curriculum rely heavily on textbooks, worksheets, and memorization drills.

Top-performing students are selected to complete an application to become an educator. Applicants who advance to the next stage must complete various tests, perform satisfactorily on interviews, and satisfy training requirements at the National Institute of Education. The mission is to prepare teachers to be good teachers of students, and to prepare teachers to be good teachers of the subject area. It is not uncommon for educators to complete 100 hours of Professional Development during the academic year.

Leadership contends that because Singapore is a small nation, education has always been a way to “forge a national identity.” Recruiting the right teachers is essential for achieving this mission. Professional Learning Communities are also formed by schools. These communities are meant to provide a space where educators can regularly, and strategically learn from the wisdom and expertise of veteran instructors within their schools.

To read more about compulsory education and compulsory attendance laws, click here
To read more about special education, click here
To read more about dropout prevention, click here.
To read more about how schools are funded, click here.  


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