Shanghai's average mathematics score was two-and-a-half years of learning above Australia's, and one-and-a-half years ahead in reading and science.
Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore are one-and-a-half to two years ahead in mathematics and about six months to a year ahead in reading and science. Yet, these cities and countries spend less per student than Australia.
While student-teacher ratios are higher in some areas than Australia, they are lower in others. It is claimed that teaching quality is higher in East Asia, but preservice requirements and teacher qualifications are broadly similar to Australia.
Participation in professional development is higher in some areas than Australia, but lower in others.
The claim of better teaching in East Asia is discounted by the fact that East Asian students resident in Australia also achieve at very high levels with Australian teachers.
One important lesson for Australia from the PISA results is that they show it is possible to lift the performance of disadvantaged students.
In Shanghai, they are more than two years ahead of disadvantaged students in Australia and a year or more ahead in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. However, achievement gaps between rich and poor students in East Asia are similar to, or even larger than in Australia.
East Asian countries/cities appear to give greater priority to the educational resources available to disadvantaged schools than Australia. For example, student-teacher ratios in disadvantaged schools are lower than in advantaged schools in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore but are not in Australia (and Shanghai).
Disadvantaged schools in Australia suffer greater teacher shortages compared to advantaged schools in East Asia. Australia has the second largest teacher shortage gap between disadvantaged and advantaged schools of the 65 countries participating in PISA. It is much larger than in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
East Asian countries/cities also give more priority to the equitable allocation of other educational resources (textbooks, science laboratories, information technology and libraries) between disadvantaged and advantaged schools.
There is little to no difference in the resources available to disadvantaged and advantaged schools in Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Australia has one of the largest gaps favouring advantaged schools of all the countries participating in PISA.
However, there is a dark side to the East Asian results which must be avoided in Australia. East Asian students' lives are dominated by an obsession with education success. Cram schools are big business in East Asia.
Some 65 to 70 per cent of 15-year-old students in Shanghai, Japan, Korea and Singapore participate in after school tutoring in mathematics compared to 27 per cent in Australia.
In Korea, 26 per cent of students spend four or more hours per week in after-school mathematics classes compared to 4 per cent in Australia, in addition to individual homework and study.
There are growing official concerns in these countries about the toll of the obsession with education success and the long hours of study it involves.
It dominates the lives of children to the detriment of their all-round development. It emphasises rote learning over thinking and creativity. It is exacerbating social inequalities because less well-off families cannot afford private tutoring.
The long hours indoors studying from an early age have also led to an epidemic of myopia. For example, about 90 per cent of children completing secondary school in Korea are shortsighted and need glasses, compared to about 30 per cent in Australia. Thus, Australia should emulate East Asia by doing more to improve school outcomes for disadvantaged students, but it would be incredibly silly to emulate the East Asian obsession with cramming and the social cost it incurs.