Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education

A video series profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests

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Raising standards by getting strong-performing schools to help weaker ones

Shanghai is China’s largest city and its principal business center, with a population of 20.7 million. It is also an education hub and a magnet for migrants from other parts of China seeking to participate in its booming economy. In a culture which traditionally sets high value on education, Shanghai stands out for its commitment to raising education standards for all and for the high quality results that its students achieve. In the 2009 PISA tests, Shanghai ranked firmly at the top.

This remarkable performance gives the lie to prejudices about Asian education systems supposedly based on rote learning and leaving little initiative for students to think on their own. Shanghai’s breathtaking economic expansion requires a constant flow of new talent, and the city’s school leadership is committed to educating its youth to think creatively and apply knowledge to solve new problems.

Typically in a Shanghai classroom, students are fully occupied and fully engaged. Non-attentive students are not tolerated. Homework is an essential part of students’ learning activities. Parents expect students to do homework every evening and are prepared to devote their family lives to their children’s studies. Students are also obliged to take part in all kinds of other activities, including at least one hour per day of physical education.

Shanghai’s experiments with educational reform began as long ago as 1980, when it and other cities with large non-state enterprise sectors started pioneering new types of vocational schools that did not guarantee or assign jobs. This innovation marked a significant step away from the strict manpower planning that had been an integral part of China’s planned economy. A decade later, Shanghai launched the first of two waves of curriculum reform, aimed at reducing the exam-oriented approach of schools in order to build quality education.

Since then, Shanghai has been a crucible for educational experimentation with a view to broadening students’ learning experiences and developing “capability” rather than accumulation of information and knowledge. In 1994, Shanghai was the first jurisdiction in China to introduce neighborhood attendance at primary and junior secondary levels, thereby confronting teachers with the obligation to handle children of diverse backgrounds and different abilities. By eliminating public examinations at the end of primary schooling, Shanghai released primary teaching from the exam pressure that is still a pervasive feature in much of Chinese education and allowed innovation and creativity to flourish.

In parallel, Shanghai raised the bar for entry to the teaching profession. All primary school teachers must have a diploma and all teachers in secondary schools are degree-holders with professional certification. Many teachers have Master’s degrees. Shanghai was the first district in China to require continuous professional development for teachers. Every teacher is expected to engage in 240 hours of professional development within five years.

In another major undertaking, Shanghai set out in the late 1990s and early 2000s to upgrade school buildings and facilities according to a “standard" program. In parallel, a system of financial transfer payments mobilized public funding for schools in outlying areas that were less well equipped than schools in the city’s central districts. Exchanges of teachers were organized in order to raise the standard of staffing in disadvantaged schools.

One of the most ambitious strategies has been to draw on the strengths of the best performing schools by getting them to take responsibility for leading improvements at weaker schools. This is done in various ways; for example, by “pairing” a strong school with a weaker school or by creating a consortium in which a number of schools in a specific area are grouped in a cluster with a strong school at the core.

Yet a third way involves an arrangement known as “empowered administration,” in which a strong school takes over the leadership of one or more weaker schools and sends a team of experienced teachers and administrators to improve management and teaching.