HomeAcademics & Activities

Shanghai: head of the (global) class

What can we learn from China's top-scoring school system?

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai, China
— Flickr/pamhule

By Connie Matthiessen

Let's say you're a 10-year-old student in Shanghai. What are you doing differently from millions of students around the world? Do you begin with military-style math drills followed by monk-like recitations of philosophy? Not exactly. Try a vigorous hour of exercise. Then of course, you launch into an eight-hour day of academic rigor, during which you're expected to participate eagerly, ace your (many) tests, and never fail to pay attention.

When school ends, it's off to music, martial arts, or drawing class – or to meet one of your tutors. Then you get to head home for, you guessed it, homework. At least you can unwind during the weekend, right? Think again: Saturdays and Sundays provide time for yet more extracurricular classes and tutoring.

Hard work pays off

Results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that Shanghai students have left their peers in the dust. Their scores weren’t just high – they were stratospheric in math, science, and reading. For the first time, the PISA report included mainland China represented by Shanghai in its testing of high-school students in some 65 countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is licking its academic wounds with decidedly ho-hum PISA results; its students coming in “average” for reading and science and for the first time since the test began, dropping into the below average category for math. What can we learn from the faraway metropolis of some 23 million? Along with their serious work ethic, it’s worth noting that the method to their mastery involves more than mindless test prep.

City of learning

Some cities pride themselves on their architecture; others, their restaurants. Shanghai, China's largest city and its business center, prides itself on its schools, long using a slogan that makes it clear Shanghai is king of the classroom: "First class city, first class education."

It's no hollow boast. Shanghai has the country's most competitive schools and colleges. The first Chinese city to provide universal access to primary and secondary schools, Shanghai’s wager paid off. Students attend college at far higher rate than in other parts of China, and competition for acceptance at the most coveted institutions is keen.

Confucius still teaching

For generations, learning has been prized in China. Going at least far back as Confucius, children were taught the message that school is a temple of learning and education a gift. (Exception: that anti-cultural chapter known as the Cultural Revolution).

The modern-day manifestation of this learning-trumps-all focus means that school doesn’t stop at the school doors. Home life revolves around learning and homework with teachers and parents sharing enormous expectations. As a result, children are, according to PISA, ". . . fully occupied and fully engaged. Non-attentive students are not tolerated . . . such intense concentration is considered a student’s responsibility in Chinese culture." Outside of school, kids regularly meet with tutors afternoons, evenings, and weekends and take classes in everything from piano and flute to calligraphy and martial arts.

Extra extracurriculars

U.S. educators cutting back P.E. programs, take note: Physical education in Shanghai schools is de riguer. Students have at least an hour of P.E. daily, starting with their morning exercise before class, an "intermission exercise" mid-morning, and other physical activity after school. Some schools even practice "eye exercises," with students massaging acupuncture points "in order to prevent eyesight deterioration."

Physical education is just one of the in-school extracurriculars: Students are also expected to take part in sports, arts, and a "daily duty" that may require they clean classrooms and corridors. To learn about social service, they visit rural villages or less privileged people. 

Teachers are tops

While bad mouthing "bad" teachers has become a national pastime in the U.S., in China, educators command reverence. With the rising economic tide, teacher salaries have grown more competitive and requirements for standards grown more stringent. Shanghai teachers participate in "teaching study-groups" in order to continually improve curriculum. Ongoing assessment is also key: teachers are regularly observed by peers or/and supervisors for mentoring and evaluation.

Reform, then reform some more

Shanghai has been ground zero for education reform – providing a laboratory for testing new national initiatives. The most recent reform measure? Reduced focus on testing! In the wake of criticism that the high stakes testing has created an overly competitive and academically narrow learning environment, Shanghai is now attempting to place more emphasis on student participation and critical thinking, instead of lectures and rote memorization. 

What’s not to like?

A lot, according to many critics. Despite stellar PISA results, Shanghai's education system has taken a beating at home and abroad. "Critics see young people as being 'fed' learning because they are seldom left on their own to learn in a way of their choice," reads the PISA report. "They have little direct encounters with nature, for example, and little experience with society either."

These deficiencies may leave Chinese graduates unprepared for an increasingly global job market, where flexibility, creativity, and innovation are prized. China's test-oriented educational system provides Chinese students with "high test scores but low ability," according to Yong Zhao, an education professor at Michigan State University who pointed out recently in the New York Times that multinational companies in China can't find qualified candidates to fill positions at their companies. At the same time, job opportunities for professionals haven't kept up with the number of college graduates China is producing in record numbers, creating an unemployment crisis in much of the country.

What's more, student stress has become such a national issue that the government has created a 2020 planning document entitled "reduction of student work load." Indeed, the “be the best or else” education may be taking a deeper toll. Studies show that rates of depression, stress, drug use, and suicide are rising among Chinese youth. According to one recent news report, worried parents have begun to do the unthinkable: tell their children to take a break from studying and, gasp, go  play.

Go here for more information on the PISA results.




Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from readers

"I am curious about these country to country comparisons. Are we truly comparing apples to apples? A simple local example: one elementary school in our district is notorious for low test scores, but the fact of the matter is that it houses a district-wide special needs program whose students' factor into the standardized test scores. Are China's special needs students educated alongside typical students and included in these comparisons? Does anyone have any insight? "
"I feel there is enormous dedication in Chinese Culture. Maybe there is an understanding that knowledge is power and its value is not taken for granted. They do whatever it takes to get there. No democracy, complaining and waiting for the opportunity to be handed to them does not exist."
"This article is just plain NOT TRUE!!!! It is politics and the admissions of these int. schools know how to play the publicity game. It is not BETTER somewhere else. Europe..ect... American schools are still producing very capable students with far exceeding problems solving/inquisitive skills. Test/ statistics...anyone who believes this without more questions NEEDs more education."
"I'm sure we have things to learn from school systems all over the world, but I wanted to point out something that was recently mentioned at the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco. One test being used throughout the world is given to all 15 year olds and in China only 80% of the population stays in school beyond elementary school whereas in the U.S the percentage is higher."
"China is not a homogenous society as so many people believe. There are many different ethnic groups in the country, some looking quite different from others. We need to educate ourselves about countries once viewed as being homogenous, but now quite heterogenous, such as China, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Finland, etc."
"Any comparisons are legitimate providing curricula are similar. In one breath we say that kids want to and need to know just what the various parameters are, and in the next we advocate that the Chinese are too regimented.??? After all it is a communistic society. What is wrong with memorization? Do we carry a piece of paper from which we read every step we make throughout the day? Don't know what works."
"So why do Chinese students flock like crazy to U.S. universities? I heard two Chinese students in the U.S. talk, and they said China's test scores are higher because not all the students are tested. In the U.S. every student is tested, even special ed students. That said, I do believe education is ripe for change in the U.S., but remember, the U.S public schools are mandated to serve ALL students who come thru their doors, not just the select ones..."
"Wow! What a great article. Coincidentally, my family and I will be moving to Shanghai in June. My two children are looking forward to going to their new school there. Hope they can keep up with all the works the kids in China are already trained to do. "
"Balance anyone?"
"I do not agree with this at all. Kids can learn to score better on tests with this army like training but there is more involve in life and learning. Percise but fun system with repition of the concepts is the best way of learning. It can be done in fews hours a day if done right. American system is better than chinese. It can improve with shorter school days but percise and repititive teachings. Most chinese have no common sense just watch them driving in NY. Communism is not the answer to improve education here in America. American kids are doing wonderful. They just have to use time more sensefully. Need more good teachers"
"I don't want to make excuses for our underwhelming urban education system, but I think China and many other countries have some distinct advantages that the U.S. simply cannot match. First, China is a homogenous society, as is most of the rest of the world. They are not expending resources for learning issues attributable to cultural or ethnic issues (not problems, but issues). Second, China is a communist country, and I use this term not as a blanket derogatory label but as a sort of compliment to the good side of that governmental structure. Decisions are made unilaterally and uniformly and autocratically. Absent are considerations for PTAs, unions, cultural or religious issues, politicians, school boards or other stakeholders. We are a nation of democracy, tolerance and immigrants. That is a wonderful blessing but I think this article highlights a likely cost. It might be helpful to know what other democratic and non-homogenous societies are doing to address these same issues. It's hard to think of many. Great Britain? Russia? Australia?"
"Wow, I hope my kids can get an education and still have time to be kids. Feels like kids are being robbed in Shanghai. How about Norway, Sweden, Denmark, they score great, what are they doing right?"
"I wish the US could be a bit more like China. We like to play hard, but not work hard. "
"It seems to me that the Chinese are on to something. I am certain there is some middle ground between their system and the lax system in the US. If you look around US neighborhoods, there are not many kids playing outside either. Most of them are inside playing in their video world. That alone is a big reason why kids do not learn much in this country. Calculators are another problem. Kids no longer know how to do arithmetic. They make mistakes on their calculators and have no idea why, because nothing is happening in their heads when they use calculators. "
"On the second paragraph of last heading where it says that multinational companies in China can't find qualified candidates to fill positions at their companies and blame this on school system that they do a hard work which cause little direct encounters with nature, for example, and little experience with society either. These deficiencies may leave Chinese graduates unprepared for an increasingly global job market, where flexibility, creativity, and innovation are prized. China's test-oriented educational system provides Chinese students with 'high test scores but low ability,' I can't agree with it at all. We need to see what is the definition of a company from a qualified employee. These days that in any country also China economy is in recession and market is very slow, companies are very picky in hiring work force. How can a student be high in score but low in ability ? It doesn't make sense. "
"Why are we obsessed with how Chinese students are performing? Test scores do not signify the worth of our children neither do they predict how successful or happy they will become as adults."
"So 'best' being high achieving students with high test scores, but who are stressed, not creative and depressed. Children with no time to play. What kind of message are you trying to send your readers? Personally, I am angry at the mixed messages given off by the media - 'It's good to be a tiger mom.' Many of the high achieving, stressed out students grow up to be soulless adults only concerned with getting higher on whatever career ladder they are on, earning more money and with no enjoyment of life, our beautiful planet or their own children's special uniqueness. The only thing important to them is that their children get the highest test scores, play their musical instruments every day and win competitions. What a sad world we are creating."
"Four tips for Shanghai schooling at home is just the case with many Shanghai Parents. When my colleagues ased me what to do when their children had trouble in learning. I always tell them to sit beside your kids and do your own reading or knitting . After a period of time, their kids make great progress. So easy job."
"I am sure that the Shanghai schools teach Chinese student very well. My guess is that these schools only teach Chinese students. When systems like Shanghai get thrown up as models to follow, it is an impossible task because the US system guarantees a free public education to all children, from all races, cultures, linguistic backgrounds, etc. This is at the complete opposite of teaching in a monolingual, monocultural system. Shanghai is nice, but my guess is that US schools do okay in preparing kids to do what our country needs to get done."
"This entire article belies the fact that there is a totalitarian traditions behind forcing children to serve as material labor units of the state. Did you mention the communist party indoctrination content? Chinese education is perfect for a totalitarian, mercantilist state that expects complete uniformity. Failing even to mention that, or that HK is under PRC control, the same PRC that refused to let its Nobel prize winner go the awards because he believes in human freedom is one reason this article is perhaps one of the more moronic posts I've read here. The US has its own brand of nationalism that educators have been trying to destroy since the 1960s and replace with a 'humanitarian military mission' ideology in foreign affairs. It is a diseased and contradictory state of mind akin to national self-hatred and guilt-mongering over our history that has us fawning over China's example instead of leading. China simply doesn't do that. They are as nationalist as you can imagine. So the solution here isn't to praise the totalitarian system -- it is to rediscover what is great in the American tradition, implement it, and then beat the Chinese. And our leaders have to get a firm handle on who we are as a people and unite Americans in becoming a great nation of hard working, ethical, moral people. First, we have to balance out our birth rates between our elder immigrant populations and the new. There has to be controlled assimilation. We're not doing that the right way."
"The Four Tips are so true. The rest of the full Shanghai could use so work, but the Four Tips are great. I have a gifted son who soared after I took him to the bookstore in the 6th grade, by passed the children's section, and went straight for the area of his greatest interest which was history, economics and politics. This was 2008 which helped. Ever since then this math and science genius has scored higher on critical reading than math and science which are through the roof anyway. I realized I was totally bored in school until I reached college and then law school. So, I let him go. This is the parental involvement I think the Four Tips includes. This leads to the necessity of reminding yourself to pay attention and participate in conversations that will come up about things your have never heard or have never heard from this perspective. It takes time, but the payback is great!"
"Our standards for teachers in the US are very very low. In college, the education majors are the ones on the lowest rung academically. I know, there are a few good teachers. But most of them cannot even have simple fractions or know basic US history. This article says in Shanghai, they have high standards for teachers. Improving teachers' images starts with improving the teachers, not telling people to shut up about their very real opinions of today's teachers."
"I wonder if these Shanghai students whose scores were stratospheric in math, science, and reading represent a statistical sample of the general population at large or just a few elite privileged few. "