Oct 25, 2013

    The secret of Shanghai schools

    The New York Times

    WHENEVER I visit China, I am struck by the sharply divergent predictions of its future that one hears.

    Lately, a number of global investors have been "shorting" China, betting that, some day soon, its powerful economic engine will sputter. Optimists take another view: that, buckle in, China is just getting started, and that what we're about to see is the payoff from its 30 years of investment in infrastructure and education.

    I'm not a gambler, so I'll just watch this from the sidelines.

    But, if you're looking for evidence as to why the optimistic bet isn't totally crazy, you might want to visit a Shanghai elementary school.

    I travelled to Shanghai with Ms Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and the leaders of the Teach for All programmes modelled on Teach for America that are operating in 32 countries.

    We're visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret: How is it that Shanghai's public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 Pisa (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they've learnt in maths, science and reading.

    After visiting Shanghai's Qiangwei Primary School, I think I found The Secret: There is no secret.

    When you sit in on a class here and meet the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools, but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system.

    These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children's learning, an insistence by the school's leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.

    Shanghai's secret is simply its ability to execute more of these fundamentals in more of its schools more of the time.

    Take teacher development. Ms Shen Jun, Qiangwei's principal, has overseen its transformation in a decade from a low-performing to a high-performing school - even though 40 per cent of her pupils are children of poorly educated migrant workers.

    She said her teachers spend about 70 per cent of each week teaching and 30 per cent developing teaching skills and lesson planning.

    Education experts will tell you that, of all the things that go into improving a school, nothing - not class size, technology, nor length of the school day - pays off more than giving teachers the time for peer review and constructive feedback, exposure to the best teaching and time to deepen their knowledge of what they're teaching.

    In 2003, Shanghai had a very "average" school system, said Mr Andreas Schleicher, who runs the Pisa exams. "A decade later, it's leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools."

    China still has many mediocre schools that need fixing. But the good news is that in just doing the things that US and Chinese educators know work - but doing them systematically and relentlessly - Shanghai has, in a decade, lifted some of its schools to global heights in reading, science and maths skills.

    Oh, and Ms Shen Jun wanted me to know: "This is just the start."