According to Dave Breitenstein of the Fort Myers, Florida-based News-Press, parental demands, a fear of failure, competition and pride are the main factors behind Asia's academic success. Education is seen as the only path to success throughout much of Asia, and a culture both inside and outside the home drives parents and their children down that path.
"There is a mentality of a first tier," said Hwy-Chang Moon, professor and dean of Seoul National University's graduate school of international studies in South Korea. "You have to be first-rate, otherwise you may not be able to survive."
The U.S. education system has been facing criticism as other nations ascend international rankings, which has made citizens, policymakers and legislators nervous about the country's presence in the 21st century economy.
"Considering the U.S. spends more money per student than any other country, but we're showing up in the middle of the pack, is clearly a cause for concern," said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
This summer, the News-Press visited Asia to analyze how Asian students — on paper — are running circles around American children, especially in math and science. Culture appears to be the main difference between Asian and American education systems.
The News-Press conducted dozens of interviews at nine Asian schools and universities, college officials, faculty, principals and parents, and they repeated the same terms when describing the typical Asian student: committed, diligent, competitive, passionate, focused and ambitious.
"A university degree is seen by most families as an investment in their son or daughter's future," Spinks said. "For Asian families, there is a return on investment."
The U.S. has a 77% high school graduation rate and is ranked 22nd of 28 nations with measurable data by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among 18 countries analyzed for post-secondary education, the U.S. tied for last, with 53% of adults completing some type of degree or certificate program.
Asia has the capacity to produce more mathematicians, scientists, engineers and every other profession simply because 60% of the world's population lives there, while slightly more than 4% of the world's population lives in the United States.
"America is still the best, but the gap between America and Korea and Singapore and Japan is getting smaller," Hwy-Chang Moon, professor and dean of Seoul National University's graduate school of international studies in South Korea. "It's time for America to watch out and see what's happening."
In addition to other factors, one problem American schools face is parental involvement. Schools invite parents to get involved, whether it's volunteering in the classroom, fundraising or simply helping children with homework. But parents have a variety of excuses for why they are not active, according to Ruthie Lohmeyer, principal of Lee County's Alternative Learning Center-Central and Lee Adolescent Mothers Program. They are busy with work, have personal issues, do not know how to get involved, or have
Parents, Lohmeyer said, are partners who must do their share to ensure students graduate. "It's a struggle, but we're all there for the same reason," Lohmeyer said. "You can't give up trying."