JAKARTA -- Long before emerging as one of the leading proponents of Brexit, Michael Gove's role as British education minister took him to Asia, where he declared in 2010 that "places like Shanghai and Singapore put us to shame," when it comes to quality of schooling.
Perhaps Gove should not have been surprised, given that the previous year Shanghai topped the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's PISA science rankings. The Program for International Student Assessment scores are published every three years and rank students in mathematics, science and reading.
Eight years on, it is not only well-funded Asian schools such as those in Singapore, which topped PISA's 2015 rankings, that are outpacing the West, according to a new World Bank report on education in the Asia-Pacific region.
"Average performance in Vietnam and in B-S-J-G [Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong] regions in China surpassed OECD member countries," said the report, titled, "Growing Smarter: Learning and Equitable Development in East Asia and the Pacific." Those students comprise 12% of the region's 330 million schoolgoers, who in turn make up a quarter of the global total.
The findings suggest students from poorer regions can fare as well, or sometimes better, than their richer counterparts. "Their performance is proof of concept that a low- or middle-income country can produce students who learn as much as or more than students from high-income countries," the report said.
"Students in Vietnam and China from the second-lowest income quintile (households in the 21st to the 40th income percentile) score better than the average OECD student, said Michael Crawford, co-author of the report and the World Bank's lead education specialist.
"This is quite notable, because in general it is hard for students from lower-income households to score, on average, higher than the typical student from a wealthy group of countries," Crawford said.
The most recent PISA rankings, published in 2015, found that "poorer students are three times more likely to be low performers than wealthier students."
According to Tran Van Hoa, director of the Vietnam and East Asia Summit Research Program and professor at Victoria University in Australia, "Vietnam's education policy is motivated by the country's key features: historical tradition, cultural characteristics, and the urgent need to address external competitive and comparative advantages in an increasingly globalized economy."
The World Bank findings seem to refute the cliche of mind-numbing rote learning that has blighted schools elsewhere in the region, such as in Thailand. Vietnam's PISA scores are "incompatible with rote learning without conceptual understanding," according to the World Bank.
"That stereotype is misleading and overdone," agreed Edward Vickers, professor of comparative education at Kyushu University in Japan.
But the advances in Asian education are mainly in natural sciences, math and engineering. The method of teaching humanities or social sciences in China remains "prescriptive" and geared toward suppressing critical thinking, Vickers added.
But overall, according to the report, 40% of students in the 18 East Asian countries studied "perform well" and, unsurprisingly, education systems in countries such as Japan and Singapore "allow [students] to learn as much as or more than students anywhere in the world."
Other recent surveys suggest improvements in Asia's schools in recent decades are having an impact on the quality of the region's universities, which have moved up in global rankings in recent years, though for the most part they are not yet close to challenging long-established Western universities.
Elsewhere, however, the region is marred by systemic education failings, suggesting the education gap in Asia is between countries, rather than between rich and poor within them.
Among the region's educational underperformers were East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, according to the World Bank report.
"Up to 60% of students in the region are in poorly performing school systems, where performance in key subjects is either low or unknown. Many of these students have learning outcomes that are below basic proficiency levels, and are greatly disadvantaged as a result," the report said.