Western schoolchildren are up to three years behind those in China's Shanghai and success in Asian education is not just the product of pushy "tiger" parents, an Australian report released Friday said.
The study by independent think-tank The Grattan Institute said East Asia was the centre of high performance in schools with four of the world's top systems in the region - Hong Kong, South Korea, Shanghai and Singapore.
"In Shanghai, the average 15-year-old mathematics student is performing at a level two to three years above his or her counterpart in Australia, the USA and Europe," Grattan's school education programme director Ben Jensen said.
"That has profound consequences. As economic power is shifting from West to East, high performance in education is too."
Students in South Korea were a year ahead of those in the US and European Union in reading and seven months ahead of Australian pupils, said the report, using data from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment.
The PISA, pioneered by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, has become a standard tool for benchmarking international standards in education.
The study said that while many OECD countries had substantially increased funding for schools in recent years, this had often produced disappointing results and success was not always the result of spending more money.
Australian schools have enjoyed a large increase in expenditure in recent years, yet student performance has fallen while South Korea, which spends less per student than the OECD average, had shot up, it said.
"Nor is success culturally determined, a product of Confucianism, rote learning or 'tiger mothers'," the report said, the latter a reference to ethnic-Chinese parents who push hard for their children to succeed.
It said Hong Kong and Singapore had made major improvements in reading literacy in the past decade, while the test by which the students were ranked was not conducive to rote learning as it required problem solving.
The report said the best systems focussed on a relentless, practical focus on learning and teacher education, mentoring and professional development, rather than greater spending.
The four systems were also unafraid to make difficult trade-offs to achieve their goals, with Shanghai, for example, raising class sizes to up to 40 pupils but giving teachers more time to plan classes and for their own research.