The Real Shanghai Secret

I just stumbled upon an amazingly well stated piece by Ann Qiu titled The Real Shanghai Secret written in response to Thomas Friedman’s NY Times OpEd: The Shanghai Secret from October 2013, where Friedman praises the progress made by Shanghai in the past decade, while glossing over the disparities in socioeconomic status comprising students in Shanghai schools.

“In 2003, Shanghai had a very “average” school system, said Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams. “A decade later, it’s leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools.”  (Friedman, 2013)

Unfortunately, on this specific issue and topic, too few people will read Ms. Qiu’s words and too many have read Mr. Friedman’s, which follow.

“When you sit in on a class here and meet with 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.

Mr. Friedman, along with many others, such as his Shanghai travel companion, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America fame, or Michelle Rhee of StudentsFirst, want us to believe that we can easily reproduce results achieved in different countries, whose cultures vary drastically from ours, by following their recipe.  Worse, abstractions of these approaches resonate with what sounds like common sense to most Americans: the essential ingredient of great propaganda.  Who would not want what Friedman, Kopp, et. al. describe?  Unfortunately, most education reform banter is cloaked in Orwellian phrases like “StudentsFirst,” “every child deserves a high-quality teacher,” or “Race to the Top” similar to how legislation is named, such as “No Child Left Behind.”  Hence, the masses clamor for, or support, these initiatives since everyone wishes for better educational outcomes for our children.

Fortunately, as a counterbalance to the missives of the mainstream media,  I found Ms. Qiu’s article via a Facebook post.  I agree with her common sense rebuttal, excerpts of which follow.

“Please be aware that a lot of young Chinese are studying abroard! [sic] This number is rising annually, and the students’ ages are increasingly younger. It is common sense to Chinese people that we cannot change the monopolized and red-coloured education system; but now, we can, at least, vote with our feet.  

Please ask yourself why the wealthy class of Chinese parents want to spend a large amount of money on “the worse education” in the USA?  Are they really fools?  They must have their reasons!

The major reasons for pursuing educational opportunities outside of China are rather obvious to us Chinese: less compulsory, less homework, less boring mechanical exercises, less standardized questions and answers, and less threatening requests.  Children can be treated as human beings instead of being force-fed homework, rote learning and standardized tests. Children have freedom to learn, even the opportunity to make mistakes.  Children are encouraged to think critically and independently.  Children can explore their curiosity.

That is what well-to-do Chinese parents are paying for: freedom, openness and humanity!”

Hopefully, most Americans will wake up to the misapplication of education statistics so commonplace today.  You would think we were better at seeing through these mistakes given the prevalence of fantasy sport leagues.  Ms. Qiu understands this simple truth when she describes Friedman’s oped.

 “…The worst thing is misinterpretation when a person just wants a surface answer of the enviable result achieved by Shanghai students in 2009 to support the standardized testing based education model, and persuade American students to “beat” the Chinese in phony competitions.” (Qiu, 2013)

My post is not meant to bash Friedman.  He does point out gems of insight, such as the following.

“…teachers spend about 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. That is far higher than in a typical American school.”

Most teachers in America employ a similar ratio in their effort.  However, they do so by sacrificing their off campus hours.

Friedman also points out that [teacher driven] collaboration is most helpful for improving outcomes.

Education experts will tell you that of all the things that go into improving a school, nothing — not class size, not technology, not 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.

Unfortunately, Friedman goes on to emphasize a narrow, ambiguous measure: productivity, as a key metric for student learning by quoting a PISA representative who sees personal development overcoming a teacher’s ability level (“average people”) .

“…while in America a majority of a teacher’s time in school is spent teaching, in China’s best schools, a big chunk is spent learning from peers and personal development. As a result, he [Andreas Schleicher] said, in places like Shanghai, “the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them,” while also, “getting the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms.” 

Our overemphasis on narrow measures such as standardized test results is understandable, if not reasonable.  We are overloaded with information today.  Busy schedules, work challenges, family dynamics, and other personal commitments occupy our precious, limited time.  Yet, perhaps we should step back and consider points such as those made by Ms. Qiu, who unabashedly “tells it like it is.”  Or have we abdicated our role in shaping our public education system to those whose future fortunes could grow mightily with greater shares of the immense public spend on education?

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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1 Response to The Real Shanghai Secret

  1. JIm says:

    The real Shanghai secret is that East Asians have an average IQ level of about 105 ( 107-108 in Japan and South Korea). On the recent PISA results Asian-Americans outscored both Japan and South Korea. The Asian-American category does not consist exclusively of East Asians and it is likely that Americans of East Asian origin would score even higher.


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