In my new book "Outliers," I spend a chapter trying to explain why Asian schoolchildren perform so much better at mathematics than their Western counterparts. The principal source of data on international math achievement is what's called TIMS--which is a standardized test adminsitered to kids around the world every four years. At the time of writing, the results of the 2007 TIMS were not yet in. But now they are, and they reaffirm what I was trying to address in Outliers. The gap between the Japan, South Korean, Hong Kong, Tawian and Singapore--and the rest of the world--is enormous and growing. Here's the relevant paragraph from the TIMS executive summary:
Remarkable percentages of students in Asian countries reached the
Advanced International Benchmark for mathematics, representing
fluency on items involving the most complex topics and reasoning skills.
In particular, at the fourth grade, Singapore and Hong Kong SAR had
41 and 40 percent of their students, respectively, achieving at or above
the Advanced International Benchmark. At the eighth grade, Chinese
Taipei, Korea, and Singapore had 40 to 45 percent of their students
achieving at or above the Advanced International Benchmark. The
median percentage of students reaching this Benchmark was 5 percent
at the fourth grade and 2 percent at the eighth grade.
A more modest gap between Asian and the rest of the world could, I think, be safely explained with conventional arguments about differences in pedagogy, or school funding or some such. But 40 percent versus 5 percnet? Differences of this magnitude require more fundamental explanations, which is why I felt it necessary to make such a strong cultural/historical claim in my book.