Educational excellence in Shanghai: a first-hand account
In 2009, for the first time ever students from China (only schools in Shanghai) participated in an international programme for assessment tests of educational achievement. For that year, students from Shanghai ranked first in the world in mathematics, science, and reading. In the maths test, they were in a class by themselves beating second place Singapore by 38 points.Many in the West were shocked and surprised by these results, while those who know Chinese education well were not at all surprised. Like many in the US, I was surprised but impressed by this success. Last week, I had the opportunity for the first time ever to visit schools in Shanghai and see education there first-hand.
The first school I visited was Shanghai Yucai High School. My first surprise was that this was a public boarding school. It has a long history, having been established in 1901. The Shanghai government made a huge investment in the school by building it a new 18-hectare campus in 1998, away from the congested city centre. Being a boarding school means its students don't lose precious time in long commutes and, thus, can devote more time to their studies and extracurricular activities.
Reflecting on China's 8th major curriculum reform implemented during the past 10 years, students have more freedom in selecting what and when they want to learn. Integral to the reform, approaches to learning and teaching have been transformed. However, the senior level classes I observed appeared to be examination-oriented education with students doing many textbook-oriented exercises.
I then had the opportunity to visit and observe Minhang Experimental Primary School. Like Yucai, this school has a long tradition having been established in 1905. This large school has three campuses and has grown dramatically in recent years. Each campus has its own distinctive character. The school is located in an area of Shanghai where many migrants have moved. There are now 200 million such migrant families in China with 70 million school-age children. Providing quality education to them is one of the major educational challenges facing China.
The Bureau of Education of Minhang district, in collaboration with Save the Children, has an important "Spring Rain Project" with the establishment of 16 primary schools to serve migrant children.
The Minhang Experimental School primarily serves neighbourhoods of high-rise apartments close to the school. Its physical infrastructure is extremely impressive. Each classroom has a very large modern plasma state-of-the-art thin television screen for displays of Internet and other visual material.
The classes I observed were various Friday afternoon activities such as band, singing, reading, dancing and art. The teachers are largely women, averaging 30 years in age. They all appeared passionate about their teaching and were highly effective in engaging students. Interestingly, in China's 27 normal colleges and universities, where teachers are primarily trained, there is an emphasis on ke wai huo dong, extra-curricular activities. Given increased autonomy in Chinese schools, the principal, clearly an instructional leader, has the power to select teachers for his school. Another noteworthy aspect of these schools is the presence of ban zhuren - teachers who serve as special tutors in key subject areas.
My next visit was to Fudan University, one of China's oldest (established in 1905) and most selective universities. It also had impressive physical infrastructure. The vast majority of students were using bicycles to move around the large campus. One of the most prominent buildings on campus (built for the school's 100th anniversary) is the Guang Hua Twin Towers 140.5 metres high, reminding me of the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh.
On a gorgeous warm late Saturday afternoon, I visited the large Science Library of the campus. I was shocked to find virtually all tables full of students seriously studying individually. This observation reflects the impressive high motivation of Chinese students.
The successes that were observed in Shanghai reflect the new Chinese National Plan for Medium and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development initiated in 2010. This plan emphasises high quality equity. While in the past the emphasis was on expanding access to schooling, with this new plan the stress is on having students experience equal educational processes in school.
With greater autonomy under decentralisation, the Shanghai Education Commission has moved away from providing special support to key elite schools to focus instead on broad-based equity.
Shanghai has also introduced a Green Index of 10 educational quality indicators covering such areas as motivation, moral character, student-teacher relations, and health.
Reflecting on the educational success of Shanghai, there are multiple explanations. Among these are:
lschool principals acting as genuine instructional leaders, not just bureaucrat-administrators;
lstronger schools helping weaker schools through clusters and partnerships;
lemphasis on equity financing of schools;
lhighly motivated students;
lteachers with a passion for their subject matter;
lextensive tutoring both within and outside schools ("shadow education");
lan emphasis on the "whole person approach" (not just academic skills);
la rigorous, demanding mathematics curriculum with much practising of extensive challenging exercises; and
lfinally and perhaps most importantly the Confucian respect for education and teachers.
In an important recent book on educational reform in China (2011), edited by Janette Ryan (University of Oxford), the Monash University scholar Wee Tiong Seah stresses how Chinese civilisation has a long history of valuing academic excellence.
Educators around the world should take a hard look not only at Finland and the "Miracle on the Han River" in Korea, but also at what is happening in the dynamic schools of Shanghai.