LATE one night in 2011, a group of South Korean government inspectors set out for a series of raids in Seoul. A journalist from TIME magazine joined the officials as they roamed the streets, looking for tell-tale signs of clandestine activity, like lights behind drawn window shades.
It wasn't meth labs or underground dance parties they were looking for. It was "cram schools". Korea has been forced to impose a 10pm curfew on these private coaching schools, to allow some respite for study-weary students. "It was a disturbing scene, sort of like a sweatshop for children's brains," remarked author Amanda Ripley on finding 40 teenagers sitting under fluorescent lights.
Korea is one of many nations that trounced Australia in a series of major international school tests this week, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS).
Korea, like Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland, gained top spots in every subject. Our own performance, by contrast, was variously described as a "wake-up call", a "disappointment" and a "catastrophe".
Australia languished between 12th and 25th in maths and science. In reading, we ranked 27th out of 48 countries, behind every other English-speaking country that participated in the studies, including the USA, England and Ireland. Around a quarter of Australian students did not meet the minimally acceptable standard of proficiency across both tests.
These rankings were significantly worse than those of the other major international exams Australia participates in, the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests the performance of 15-year-olds in a range of subjects.
But even the most recent PISA scores, in 2009, showed declining literacy and flat-lining maths and science results.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard wants Australia in the top five in these tests by 2025. The task has been set for Australian kids to compete with Korean, Finnish and Singaporean kids in 13 years.
One approach to competing with these countries will be learning from their success. Most have not always performed so well but introduced reform that turned their results around. But experts say we should also avoid their worst excesses.
Professor Geoff Masters, chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research, says it would be a mistake to simply imitate the education systems of high-ranking countries.
Their approaches are many and varied, and huge differences exist in factors like class sizes, time spent studying and the mix of public and private learning.
In Finland, students spend fewer hours in the classroom than any other OECD country, and class sizes are small. But Hong Kong and Singapore have, on average, around 35 kids to a class.
But there are, according to Masters, common and instructive approaches among those that succeeded.
"I think the things that these countries are doing that make a difference are the obvious things - they're paying a lot of attention to the development of their teachers . . . high-quality pre-service teacher education courses, making sure teachers are well-versed in research evidence, that they're being taught and given opportunities to practise effective teaching strategies," he says.
Ben Jensen, education analyst with the Grattan Institute, recently wrote a paper on the success of East Asian education systems, and what Australia can learn from them. He says that while cram schools are most visibly a problem in Korea, and definitely not something we should emulate, they are not the reason for the region's success.
"There is no doubt that these systems have had too much rote learning in the past and what they have been trying to do is move away from that," says Jensen.
There are similarities in the strategies used by both Asian regions like Korea or Hong Kong and Western regions like Finland or the Canadian province of Ontario to improve schooling.
"Those cram schools have been around forever and a day, and these systems were performing much lower in the league tables before their education reforms," he says.
This strategy is exemplified by Hong Kong, which went from 17th in the reading exam (PIRLS) just over a decade ago, to first place this year.
At the turn of the millennium, Hong Kong embarked on comprehensive education reform. High-stakes public exams were binned in favour of school-based assessments like oral presentations and projects. Teachers' focus was switched from what children learn to how they learn it.
Little children in Hong Kong once learned to read and write by endlessly copying Chinese characters. Under the reforms, there was a new focus on speaking, listening and trying to foster a love of reading. Parental education played a role, with thousands of mums and dads attending workshops in how to develop their child's interest in reading.
"There's a clear strategy about what is effective learning and teaching and then getting the whole system aligned and focused on those areas," says Jensen.
Nurturing teachers and elevating their role has also been pivotal. Singapore has one of the most advanced education systems in the world and, for more than a decade, has consistently ranked near the top on international education indices.
Half a century ago, there was no compulsory education and most of its 2 million people were illiterate.
The prestige of teaching is considered an important contributor to this success. Being a teacher in Singapore is considered a great honour. Teachers are selected from the top third of high school students through rigorous selection processes. All teachers are trained at the National Institute of Education and are assessed annually against 16 competencies. They are paid during teacher education. But long hours and cultural expectations play a role too.
Professor Tom Lowrie from the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education is undertaking a cross-cultural study of the Australian and Singaporean education systems.
He says children in Singapore start school as early as 7.30 in the morning and finish about 2pm to avoid the afternoon heat. With parents working late, students often stay in the school's care as late as 6pm, where they take informal classes like sport or music. Private tutoring is common and until recently students went to school on Saturday.
"Parents value education highly and that filters through to the children, who value education highly and respect teachers greatly," Lowrie says.
Children are also well-prepared for these exams. "Teachers know that the students have to get the questions right so there is a very explicit strategy teaching that takes place in the classroom," he says.
The prestige placed on teaching may be one of the few things the small authoritarian city-state has in common with the Nordic powerhouse of education, Finland.
Education reformer Pasi Sahlberg, director-general at the Centre for International Mobility in Helsinki, travels the world extolling the success of his nation's education system, the envy of the Western world.
One of his favourite anecdotes is the story of his niece Veera, who tried unsuccessfully to get into a teacher education program in Finland after finishing school with high marks. "She read required books, took the exam and was invited to the final interview where only the top candidates were selected," he wrote in the Washington Post.
"A month later, she called me in tears and told me she was not accepted."
While her marks were exceptional, he explained, she did not demonstrate enough passion, and was turned down.
By raising the bar for entry into the profession and allowing teachers to exercise considerable discretion, teaching has earned prestige comparable with law and medicine. It is the most popular career option among young Finnish people.
Primary teachers are recruited from the top 10 per cent of high school graduates and must complete a masters degree. In 2010, only one in 10 primary teaching applicants scored a spot at the eight universities that educate teachers, according to an OECD report.
Significantly, Finland, which long ago abolished fee-paying schools, also produces high-achieving students across the system. Equality of achievement, not just high performance, is its focus.
"Parents don't really need to be concerned where a good school is because, statistically at least, all schools are good schools," Sahlberg says.
The next round of PISA results are due in late 2013, with more TIMMS and PIRLS reports in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
School Education Minister Peter Garrett this week reaffirmed the government's commitment to hitting the top-five target. Some experts think this emphasis is misplaced.
"By saying we want to be in the top-five performers in the world, we're really just saying we want to be in the top-five test performers," says Lowrie.
But what is at stake, many point out, may be our kids' competitiveness in an increasingly globalised world. If nothing else, we should always be striving to do better.
"It's a moving target, we're not the only country that's trying to improve," says Masters. "It's one thing to say we want to be like Singapore, but we don't know where Singapore is going to be by 2025.
"But it's good to have a target, good to have something to shoot for."