How Shanghai schools beat them all
A Chinese teacher asks a question to a student after they watched a video featuring Japan's wartime rise in a history lesson at a high school in Shanghai on 24 March 2005. (Getty Images)
August 1st, 2011
11:00 AM ET

How Shanghai schools beat them all

By Jiang Xueqin, The Diplomat

It appears that no one takes education quite as seriously as the Shanghainese.

Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) administers its worldwide Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to measure how well a nation’s education system has been preparing its students for the global knowledge economy. Nations such as South Korea, Finland, and Singapore have traditionally topped the rankings, but, apparently, even they are no match for Shanghai, which shoved the others into lower positions in its very first year of participation in the programme, in 2009.

When I was in Paris last week, I decided to drop in on Andreas Schleicher, the programme’s architect, to get his views on PISA and Shanghai’s education system. Dr. Schleicher, who was recently profiled in the Atlantic Monthly, had some very interesting things to say about both.

According to Schleicher, Shanghai’s education system is distinctive and superior — and not just globally, but also nationally.

Hong Kong, Beijing, and ten Chinese provinces participated in the 2009 PISA, but their results reflected education systems that were still the same-old knowledge acquisition models, whereas Shanghai had progressed to equipping students with the ability to interpret and extrapolate information from text and apply it to real world situations — what we would normally refer to as ‘creativity.’  Twenty-six percent of Shanghai 15 year-olds could demonstrate advanced problem-solving skills, whereas the OECD average is 3 percent.

So how did Shanghai create the world’s best education system?

First, the Shanghai municipal government believes that the most effective way to raise the human capital it needs for the global knowledge economy is by focusing on raising the overall quality of its education system rather than investing in elite schools. ‘Students of privilege will do well wherever they are, and more resources directed at them won’t improve them that much,’ Schleicher explained. ‘But more attention and investment will greatly improve disadvantaged students.’

Lacking adequate capital, Shanghai decided to rely on the expertise of its best principals and teachers to reform its failing schools. The Shanghai government promised career advancement opportunities and autonomy if educators could turn around such schools, and this policy has been stunningly successful. According to Schleicher, 70 percent of Shanghai students are ‘resilient,’ meaning that they have stronger math, reading, and science skills than their socio-economic background would suggest.

Read: Are China and the U.S. destined to clash?

‘There’s real interest and engagement between teachers and students,’ Schleicher said. ‘Every Shanghai classroom has high demands yet offers extensive support.’ There’s an expectation and a demand that every student can succeed, and teachers regularly collaborate to improve student performance.

According to Schleicher, what’s truly impressive about Shanghai schools is how they focus on collaborative and creative learning. Instead of force-feeding knowledge and information to students, teachers motivate them to learn for themselves, and the curriculum emphasizes student-centred learning. For example, in one math class visited by Schleicher, the teacher threw out a complex problem that provoked classroom discussion as to how to best arrive at a possible solution.

Schleicher is quite upbeat about Shanghai’s global economic prospects. Today, the United States may be the leader in creativity and innovation, but that’s because it made university education universally available 40 years ago, Schleicher argued. Now that the United States is failing to invest properly in public education, its prospects are dim. Shanghai is in the reverse position. PISA reveals that Shanghai is creating for itself a skilled workforce, and that’s a ‘significant advantage,’ he told me.

Now might seem a good time to make my usual round of snide and sarcastic comments, but I actually agree with Schleicher about Shanghai’s economic prospects. Each time I visit Shanghai, I’m amazed by — especially compared with Beijing — how well-managed and orderly the city is, and by how industrious and honest the people are. Chinese like to joke that Shanghai is closer to the shores of Europe than it is to China, and Shanghai schools have set themselves apart from the rest of the country.

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Shanghai has the world’s best education system because Shanghainese, more than anyone else in China, take education seriously — perhaps way too seriously. The Shanghai municipal government will invest 22.4 billion yuan annually on its schools, whereas the Chinese national government will invest 299.2 billion yuan for all of China. And then there’s the individual parental investment: During a child’s elementary school years, Shanghai parents will annually spend on average of 6,000 yuan on English and math tutors and 9,600 yuan on weekend activities, such as tennis and piano. During the high school years, annual tutoring costs shoot up to 30,000 yuan and the cost of activities doubles to 19,200 yuan.

This early investment is to prepare Shanghai students for study at U.S. colleges and universities. In 2005, 110,000 Shanghai students participated in the national college entrance examination (the gaokao). By 2010, as more and more Shanghainese chose the United States for college, that number dwindled down to 67,000.

This year, only 61,000 Shanghainese participated in the gaokao. (By comparison, in Yunnan Province, where most families cannot afford to study overseas, students participating in the gaokao increased from 170,000 in 2005 to 220,000 in 2010.) Shanghai parents are giving their children the best of both education worlds: A Shanghai kindergarten to grade 12 education and a U.S. higher education.

Read: China blasts U.S. on debt ceiling.

And most Shanghainese students who’ve studied abroad will return to Shanghai. After all, Shanghai is the financial capital of the world’s second largest economy. But, more important, Shanghai is adopting Western standards and practices throughout its society and economy so that its overseas-returned students can put their new knowledge and experience to effective use immediately.

The Shanghainese obsession with education has guaranteed their bright city a brighter future.  Shanghai is well-positioned to dominate globally as an innovation and knowledge economy, Schleicher told me.

Now, if Shanghainese could just care a little more about the quality of their food…

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Jiang Xueqin. For more excellent analysis of Asia, visit The Diplomat.

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Topics: East Asia • Education

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soundoff (140 Responses)
  1. Howard

    I teach at a second-tier US university. Yesterday at the end of the class, I told the class that I wanted explain an important and tricky issue but it's beyond the scope of our class (not quite actually) and will not appear on the exam. Whoever is curious enough can stay, others (who are not interested) can leave early. You know what? Only 6 students chose to stay and only one is a white American student and the rest are all Chinese.

    When I drove back home after teaching, I saw a few white guys working under the hot sun, digging the dirt for some minimum pay... and they are actually better off than a lot of people in town because they still have a job... It makes me think what has gone wrong...

    I have been trying so hard to teach my American students, but most of them are not competent (I blame them for wasting too much time in K-13), or they simply DONT care about learning. If you see how eager to learn most of the Chinese students are, and how respectful they are,... it would be my great surprise if China doesn't beat the US in many respects soon.

    August 2, 2011 at 10:16 am | Reply
    • USA

      What motivates our youth?

      August 2, 2011 at 11:15 am | Reply
  2. bobincal

    The US made “university education universally available 40 years ago”. Not true. You still have to have the GPA and SAT scores that will get you admitted and give you a good chance of graduating. Only open universities admit anyone with a pulse.

    August 2, 2011 at 11:34 am | Reply
  3. Maimonida

    If we do not become as serious on education we will loose more jobs, position of educated and technically and scientifically advanced power.

    August 2, 2011 at 11:41 am | Reply
  4. Dave

    This article is garbage and an agenda piece. The PISA testing is not indicative of the quality of education to begin with. And vast majority of chinese cannot apply what they have memorized for solution of real life challenges.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:02 pm | Reply
    • James

      Keep thinking that as China continues to leave us in the dark ages. I am seeing more and more research coming out of China. Many researchers here are collaborating with groups in China now because they see the benefits. The more their economy grows, the more they are investing in education. Yet we are resembling more and more North Korea. Time to wake up fellow Americans.

      August 2, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Reply
  5. Howard

    It is harmful and misleading to still think that the Chinese can only memorize. As I said earlier, nowadays, if you go to any academic conference, you'll find the Chinese are the major players (number and quality). The number of innovations, the number of patents,... the Chinese are catching up very quickly and probably already surpassed the US. Actually, many high tech US products are invented by the Chinese too.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
  6. James

    Instead of bad mouthing China for it's Pre University Education why not admit that they are doing a better job and try and learn something from it. Don't argue, it's a fact. We are so behind in math and I cant even count how many times some non native speaker did better on the English portion of our own standardized tests than Americans do. Please fellow Americans do not let China take the lead in education, it will be our downfall.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  7. USA

    We see children as hindrances from our American dream, the Chinese see children as the fullfillments to thier Chinese dream.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Reply
    • bobincal

      That would be "child" – singular.

      August 2, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
      • what? it's not

        August 2, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  8. OCPanda

    We need not to be patriotic in this situation. We just need to accept the good from others, what they do best and learn from it. Don't criticize others because of Jealousy.

    Give the Shanghainese the credits and learn to improve ourselves.

    August 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Reply
    • James

      I agree.

      August 2, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  9. USA

    "Please fellow Americans do not let China take the lead in education, it will be our downfall."

    August 2, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Reply
    • USA

      If we don't, we will lose what we have achieved in 5 to 10 years at the most.

      August 2, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  10. Mark Russell

    First of all, the existance of Belgium is a myth. Secondly, the chinese have slanty eyes.

    August 3, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Reply
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