How Shanghai Schools Beat Them All

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How Shanghai Schools Beat Them All

Shanghai students are ranked the best in the world, according to an OECD assessment. So why are they so much better than their peers?

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.  

‘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.

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 US 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 US higher education. 

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…