How did Shanghai win this year’s Education World Cup?

Chris Husbands

It was Finland. Before that it was Singapore. A long time ago it was West Germany. Now it is Shanghai. If there were an Education World Cup, Shanghai would currently be the holders. Shanghai’s performance in the 2012 PISA survey was exceptional, and the most recent reports suggest that the children of Shanghai’s cleaners and caterers are three years more advanced than UK lawyers’ and doctors’ children in maths. For the next three years, at least, the baggage reclaim at Shanghai Airport will be full of the world’s education ministers and their advisers. So how does Shanghai do it?

Before answering that question directly, it’s worth remembering an old statistical adage, that if something is too good to be true, it’s probably not true. The idea of an educational nirvana in which standards are high and the children of the poor do better than the children of the rich elsewhere needs to be taken with a large dose of reality. And there are difficult questions. Some have to do with how representative Shanghai’s schools are of schools across China. Others are about whether the Shanghai PISA sample included the children of migrant workers – making up a huge proportion of the Shanghai population.  Yet others have painted a picture of the unremitting lives of Chinese children: as Emma Vanbergen puts it “simply extremely hard working study machines who memorise and churn out answers to tests in mere minutes”.

I know a little about Shanghai, having been recently appointed as a visiting professor at East China Normal University, which sits near the centre of the sprawling metropolis housing 27 million people. Explanations of Shanghai’s performance which look beyond questions about the representativeness of the sample tend to focus on three main factors:  first, cultural attitudes towards education and learning; second, the organisation of schooling and the curriculum and, finally, teaching and pedagogy. Most commentators opt for one of these and suggest that “if only” other countries were to copy that, their performance would soar. My own explanation is that there are some good things in Shanghai – as well as some questionable ones – and that the outcomes are a result of the interaction between them.

Shanghai schools expect a lot of their students. The school day begins at 8 am. Most schools serve breakfast. The day is long – it goes on until 3.30 or 4.00 – though both teachers and pupils have a nap after lunch, and there is an hour of homework for elementary school pupils and two hours for high school pupils. Many pupils – certainly over half, according to senior academics at ECNU – have private tutors, and allegations of bribery of teachers are rife. The Shanghai economy is booming, so unemployment is low, and all students expect to secure good jobs. (Undesirable “dirt work” is the preserve of the vast army of migrant workers.)

Class sizes are large, and increasingly academics worry that at 40-45 they are too large, reinforcing a pedagogy which is focused on meeting the demands of high stakes testing but does little to promote deep learning. Nonetheless, it is an efficient pedagogy, focusing on the mastery of difficult, if often basic concepts. Performance is high, but practice is relatively narrow.

Expectations of teachers are high. All new teachers are expected to complete 360 hours of continuing professional development in their own time during their first three years;  it is not compulsory, and is one-third funded by the teacher, one-third by the school and one-third by the municipal authority. Those who do not complete the required hours will not be promoted. The 360 hours are organised at least in part around a Masters degree provided by the universities.

In school, all teachers are part of teaching and research groups, based around their subject and around the grade they are teaching. The groups meet for 90 minutes each week to discuss classroom teaching and jointly plan the next week’s work. Because class sizes are large, the number of hours each teacher teaches is quite low – up to 15 hours a week in secondary schools, and up to 18 hours in primaries.

School principals are required to complete a 540 hour course before they can take up the job, and will not be promoted until they have demonstrated success in a challenging school. The training is provided by the universities, and is co-funded by participants and by the municipal authority. Each school principal has two coaches.

How does all this explain the performance of schools in Shanghai: is it a booming urban economy, or the exclusion of lower performing migrants from the sample? Is it the close involvement of universities in professional training or the cultural assumptions about the place of education? Is it the focus on teacher learning communities or breakfast and that early afternoon nap? And how representative is Shanghai?  As ever, in education policy, as Jay Greene puts it, you “pick the anecdote you want to believe”.

There are good, and in some ways spectacular, things going on in education in Shanghai – but it may be the way they combine that makes the difference. All I will say, as a visiting professor there, is that the education issues academics, teachers and students raise with me are not wildly different from those raised in London.

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Posted in Chris Husbands, International comparisons, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
3 comments on “How did Shanghai win this year’s Education World Cup?
  1. Andrew Sabisky says:

    No, there is no need to presuppose some “educational nirvana in which standards are high and the children of the poor do better than the children of the rich elsewhere”. This is not at all an unlikely phenomenon. Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, we have two nations entirely autarkic and endogamous, no population flow between the two, no immigration. Nation A has a national IQ of 90, whilst nation B has a national IQ of 110. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that these two nations are relatively meritocratic, so that within both nations, IQ and SES are closely correlated. Clearly, whilst the poor children in nation B will have lower IQs than their wealthier compatriots, they will most likely match or even outperform the wealthy children of nation A.

    Now, let’s say you’ve read Lynn and Vanhanen’s books, and you know than national IQ is an excellent predictor of national GDP. So you think it’s very likely, in the real world, that the poor kids of nation B will actually have a higher standard of living than even the wealthy kids of nation A. So, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that nation A is in fact superbly wealthy by virtue of selling lots of oil. Or we can assume that it used to be a higher-IQ nation a few hundred years ago, but has been suffering from an unfortunate and persistent bout of dysgenic fertility. And nation B, let’s say, is recovering from an exceedingly expensive experiment with Communism that didn’t go well, thus largely wrecking their economy for the past century.

    As you can see, we are starting to head back towards the real world, with nation A looking a bit like Saudi Arabia et al, and nation B China or Vietnam or whatever (if the poor Chinese kids beat the rich kids here I’m guessing they beat the rich Saudis too). The picture is a bit more complicated than that because China is actually not especially meritocratic so you wouldn’t expect IQ and SES to be so closely correlated over there (although Gregory Clark would probably argue that the cream still rises to the top anyway, but w/e). As the smart money has always known, IQ (genes) is a better bet than cash, every time (best to have both, of course). Rindermann et al showed this quite nicely here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289613000731 and a little while later PISA came along to confirm his results.

    To clarify, I am not saying that fraud, gaming the system, or better teaching explain 0% of the difference between Shanghai and the UK. Put them together and they probably do explain quite a decent chunk. The rest, however, is most parsimoniously explained by higher IQ (most likely better genes). If the Chinese kids really are more conscientious that is likely also genetically influenced to some degree. The UK does seem to significantly underperform its national IQ on PISA, and it’s worth figuring out why, but that’s the real question, not “why don’t we do as well as they do in Shanghai”.

    Lastly, what on earth is a “difficult, if often basic concept”? And as for “class sizes are large, and increasingly academics worry that at 40-45 they are too large” – would these be the same academics who have done such a great job with education in this country?

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