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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 February 2014

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.