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'Shanghai Miracle'

Education Reforms Envied by the World


Education Reforms Envied by the World


Education experts from around the globe are flocking to Shanghai to find out why China's largest city has emerged as a world leader in quality school education. But they haven't any magic secrets behind the "Shanghai miracle."



Education Reforms Envied by the World

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 536 )

In a New York Times column published in late October, columnist Thomas Friedman extolled the merits of Shanghai's primary school education. Under the headline The Shanghai Secret, Friedman relayed his first-hand experiences of visits to several Shanghai elementary schools earlier in the month.

Friedman, known for such bestsellers as The World is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded, was impressed with their high level of performance. Like many others before him, Friedman went to Shanghai to find out why the city's public secondary schools topped the world rankings in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) tests in all three categories tested – math, science and reading.

It was the first time Shanghai had participated in the PISA rankings, which are based on tests that measure the ability of 15-year-old students in 65 countries to apply what they have learned in school.

Educators around the world are still stunned by the "Shanghai miracle." Expecting to uncover a secret behind Shanghai's PISA dominance, Friedman ended up concluding, "There is no secret." Instead, what he found was "a relentless focus on all the basics."

No Magic Behind Shanghai Miracle

What exactly are these basics that turned low performing schools into high performing ones? Friedman summed them up as "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 has demonstrated its ability to execute more of these fundamentals in more of its schools more often, leading to improvement in the overall quality of the city's education. Still, mastering these fundamentals is easier said than done.

In 1998, Shanghai launched a second phase of curriculum reforms, becoming the trial ground for nationwide education reform. While the first stage of curriculum reform focused on knowledge building, the advanced stage adopted a student-centered philosophy and advocated a new curriculum designed to nurture a spirit of innovation and practical skills.

Classes have never been the same since.

"The key is curriculum building and improving teaching materials," explains Zheng Guihua, a professor with the Department of Chinese of Shanghai Normal University who participated in the design of the new curriculum's standards.

Zheng says Shanghai has always strived to make classroom teaching more effective and encouraged teachers to improve their teaching through a wide range of training and research activities. Those painstaking efforts at improving basic education over a decade finally paid off for Shanghai with a stunning leap in quality.

120,000 Teachers Spearheading Reform

The city's 120,000 teachers are the engine that drives the qualitative change in education. As Zheng notes, "if students are to be at the core, teacher quality is a decisive factor."

That has pretty much emerged as the consensus among educators in Shanghai. What observers are curious about is how Shanghai put the consensus into practice.

It's a Thursday morning, and Shanghai is already stifling hot even if there is hardly any sunlight. "Good morning, teacher," shouts a chorus of 40 fourth graders with red neck scarves standing up straight. "Good morning, students," responds Cheng Lining with a smile, her eyes scanning the classroom. Built in 1903, Shanghai Elementary School in Shanghai's Xuhui District has a long tradition. In the 2013 China's 500 Best Elementary Schools survey, published by Washington-based think tank China Research Group ( in October, time-honored Shanghai Elementary ranked 48th.

Reform No. 1: Overhauling Lesson Plans

The subject of Cheng's Chinese language lesson today is "A Spiky Friend," a story that describes the story's author observing a hedgehog as it steals jujubes. At the beginning of the lesson, Cheng writes "A (    ) Friend" on the blackboard, leaving a blank for the adjective, and asks the students what kind of friend this could be.

Many hands shoot up at once, the students eager to answer the teacher's question.

One of the keys of effective teaching is designing a complete lesson plan ahead of classes. In her lesson plans, Cheng lists her teaching objectives, points of emphasis and the process she plans to follow. In class, she discusses the text with the students to introduce the story, gets students to relate to how the author feels about the hedgehog, has them summarize how the theft of the jujubes happened, gets them to reflect on the purpose of describing the story's setting, and explains how the paragraphs are tied together.

In no hurry to explain the text, Cheng lets the students read it aloud several times to find the phrases that describe the hedgehog and reflect the author's feelings about the animal, gradually enabling the students to put the story into context.

The story was completely covered in a class of 35 minutes, a lesson successfully taught. All told, 33 lessons have to be learned per school term.

Cheng is not a rookie teacher. Having entered the teaching profession nine years ago, she has taught fourth graders twice before. Still, her lesson plans keep changing.

"I have to adjust my lesson plans for each class based on the learning ability of my students. Teaching cannot be set in stone," she explains.

Reform No. 2: Joint Lesson Preparation

Teaching can be more effective if teachers learn from each other and jointly prepare lessons. At Shanghai Elementary School, teachers who teach the same subject in the same grade get together every week for a scheduled meeting to discuss the upcoming week's classes.

"Quietly and thoroughly, they prepare their lessons for each textbook unit," explains Wang Chengliang, the school's head of teaching research.

All teachers carefully read the lesson in the textbook and analyze the text with regard to its structure, narrative mode, thoughts and feelings expressed. They are required to design their lesson plans in a way that suits the particular needs of students in the respective grade. At the same time, they discuss the unit's learning objectives and gather texts of a similar style and genre.

"Collective lesson preparation fosters team collaboration. Preparing lessons as a unit effectively promotes the faculty's professional development," Wang says. There are limitations on teaching time and limits to students' cognitive levels, Wang explains, but when teachers collectively prepare lessons and work hand in hand with the teaching research division to research curriculum standards and requirements, then problems involving limitations can be solved within a limited amount of time.

Reform No. 3: Peer Mentoring and Review

Opening up classrooms to allow fellow teachers to observe classes is an indispensable part of improving teacher performance. Novice teachers are required to sit in on other teachers' classes together with their "mentor" teachers, while veteran teachers have the right to visit classrooms unannounced to observe their peers.

"This support ranges from designing a lesson plan to jointly preparing lessons and inviting experienced teachers to give a demonstration lesson in one's classroom," notes Sun Yanyun, who has been teaching for five years. Sun was deeply impressed by this approach to professional development because inexperienced or struggling teachers are not left to fend for themselves.

Teacher training not only takes place at the school level; the national education system is also strongly involved.

"The Shanghai City government places particular emphasis on developing the teacher pool, and therefore we keep tight control on teacher training," declares master teacher Gao Yongjuan, who is a researcher with the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission. 

Finding Shanghai Jing An Education College is not easy. The taxi keeps going back and forth on Xinzha Road before locating the college in one of the city's narrow alleys.

The institution serves as more than just a local training facility for teachers in the district. It has been commissioned by the Ministry of Education to conduct nationwide core curriculum research and planning for four five-year-plans in a row.

Shanghai's best education resources are virtually all concentrated in Jing An District. The district's 26,000 students are taught by 3,000 teachers, an average student-teacher ratio of less than eight to one.

"As a training center, our work is to design paths for teachers' professional growth and to carry out training," notes Cao Bing, head of the college's training department. Cao points out that the department trains teachers as well as principals and school administrators, albeit with different courses that are not lumped together.

Under China's 12th Five-Year Plan for 2011 to 2015, teachers are required to spend 360 hours on professional development during each five-year period of their teaching career, compared to the previously mandated 240 hours. Professional development at the school, district, and city level focuses on three areas: morality and ethics, knowledge and skills, and practice and experience.

In the case of Shanghai, teacher training in Jing An District has always played a pioneering role, which is why it makes particularly high demands of teachers. The college has a scientific research department that tutors teachers on how to conduct empirical research and develop curriculums. When it comes to teaching research, common problems that surface each school term are incorporated into different training modules and solved through systematic curriculum design.

Wang Zhenbing, the college's vice president, notes that teacher training is a "strict requirement," because China has a career ladder system for teachers. "If teachers don't meet those requirements, their future development will be affected. This is what it means to establish a mechanism to solve problems," Wang says.

Ranking Teachers at all Levels

In fact, Chinese teachers are categorized into several tiers, which decide their professional development and remuneration.

In Shanghai teachers start out on equal footing and gradually move up the career ladder depending on the evaluation of their professional performance.

Students grade their teachers' performance every school term. On top of that, expert teachers from school-based teaching committees observe classes in unannounced visits and evaluate the teachers. And finally, colleagues who jointly prepare lessons in the teaching research division mutually assess their performance, while also judging their own performance in an itemized self-evaluation.

"With so many comprehensive ratings, we definitely get close to the truth," believes Cheng, who served as a junior high school teacher for 16 years before switching to an academic career.

Shanghai's education system has systematically connected professional development, continuing education and training for teachers, and career development. Friedman was clearly impressed with what he saw in China, observing that Shanghai is "systematically and relentlessly" doing the things that American and Chinese educators know work.

But where will Shanghai's education head in the future? As China continues to rise, the whole world is watching, eager to find Chinese clues to the conundrum of contemporary education.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz