Q. How did Shanghai students, participating in a high-profile international exam for the first time, land at the top of the math, reading and science rankings?
A. An obsession with test-taking, to the exclusion of a lot of other things.
Education historian Diane Ravitch, author of the best-selling '"The Death and Life of the Great American School System," and Michigan State University Professor Yong Zhao explain what happened in two separate posts.
At Michigan State, Yong is director of both the Center for Teaching and Technology and the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence. He is also the executive director of the Confucius Institute/Institute for Chinese Teacher Education.
He wrote a piece on his blog reacting to the great surprise expressed by American leaders, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, about the fast rise of the Shanghi students in the 2009 administration of the Program for International Student Assessment. The test is given to 15-year-olds in about 64 countries and individual school systems. Results released last week by the test's sponsor, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, showed that the United States was generally in the middle of the pack.
On his blog, Yong wrote, in part:
I don't know why this is such a big surprise to these well educated and smart people. Why should anyone be stunned? It is no news that the Chinese education system is excellent in preparing outstanding test takers, just like other education systems within the Confucian cultural circle — Singapore, Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong.
Interestingly, this has not become big news in China, a country that loves to celebrate its international achievement. I had thought for sure China's major media outlets would be all over the story. But to my surprise, I have not found the story covered in big newspapers or other mainstream media outlets. I have been diligently reading xinhuanet.com, the official web portal for Xinhua News Agency, China's state-controlled media organization, but have yet found the story on the front page or on its education columns.
Instead, I found a story that has caught the attention of many readers (in Chinese) that provides the real reason behind Chinese students' top performance.
The story, entitled A Helpless Mother Complains about Extra Classes Online, Students Say They Have Become Stupid Before Graduation, follows a mother's online posting complaining about how her child's school's excessive academic load has caused serious physical and psychological damages:
Since my daughter began 7th grade (first year of middle school), she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 18:50 and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 20:40. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 to 20:00 on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don't have any self-study time, or physical education classes....
This kind of practice has seriously damaged students' health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child's health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit..... This is not the end. After coming home after 10pm, she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5 a.m. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?
The posting has received lots of comments online praising the mother's courage and adding more exposures of similar experiences.
"I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school," says one student. "You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day," says another student to the reporter.
That's the secret: When you spend all your time preparing for tests, and when students are selected based on their test-taking abilities, you get outstanding test scores.
But is this what we want for our children? Mr. Arne Duncan should read the letter from the mother because it should be the true wake-up call for him.
Ravitch wrote about the same subject on her Bridging Differences blog at Education Week, where she and renowned educator Deborah Meier exchange letters about school reform. She said, in part:
Our leaders in Washington would have us believe that they know how to close the achievement gap and how to overtake the highest-performing nations in the world. PISA proves that they don't.
Consider the two top contenders on PISA: Shanghai and Finland. These two places — one a very large city of nearly 21 million, the other a small nation of less than six million — represent two very different approaches to education. The one thing they have in common is that neither of the world leaders in education is doing what American reformers propose.
According to the OECD, the international group that sponsors PISA, the schools of Shanghai — like those in all of China — are dominated by pressure to get higher scores on examinations. OECD writes:
"Teaching and learning, in secondary schools in particular, are predominantly determined by the examination syllabi, and school activities at that level are very much oriented towards exam preparation. Subjects such as music and art, and in some cases even physical education, are removed from the timetable because they are not covered in the public examinations. Schools work their students for long hours every day, and the work weeks extend into the weekends, mainly for additional exam preparation classes...private tutorials, most of them profit-making, are widespread and have become almost a household necessity."
OECD points out that more than 80 percent of students in Shanghai attend after-school tutoring. It remarked on the academic intensity of Chinese students. Non-attention is not tolerated. As I read about the "intense concentration" of these students, I was reminded of the astonishing opening event of the Beijing Olympics, when 15,000 participants performed tightly scripted routines. It is hard to imagine a similar event performed by American youth, who are accustomed not to intense discipline, but to a culture of free expression and individualism.
Interestingly, the authorities in Shanghai boast not about their testing routines, but about their consistent and effective support for struggling teachers and schools. When a school is in trouble in Shanghai, authorities say they pair it with a high-performing school. The teachers and leaders of the strong school help those in the weak school until it improves. The authorities send whatever support is needed to help those who are struggling. In the OECD video about Shanghai, the lowest-performing school in the city is described as one where "only" 89 percent of students passed the state exams! With the help sent by the leaders of the school system, it eventually reached the target of 100 percent.
Finland is at the other end of the educational spectrum. Its education system is modeled on American progressive ideas. It is student-centered. It has a broad (and non-directive) national curriculum. Its teachers are drawn from the top 10 percent of university graduates. They are highly educated and well prepared. Students never take a high-stakes test; their teachers make their own tests. The only test they take that counts is the one required to enter university.
Last week, I went to a luncheon with Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish education expert. I asked him the question that every politician asks today: "If students don't take tests, how do you hold teachers and schools accountable?" He said that there is no word in the Finnish language for "accountability." He said, "We put well-prepared teachers in the classroom, give them maximum autonomy, and we trust them to be responsible."
I asked him if teachers are paid more for experience. He said, "Of course." And what about graduate degrees? He said, "Every teacher in Finland has a master's degree." He added: "We don't believe in competition among students, teachers, or schools. We believe in collaboration, trust, responsibility, and autonomy."
Since I have not visited schools in either Shanghai or Finland, I am certainly no expert. It was interesting to watch the short videos about their schools, found here. It is also interesting to consider what these two very different systems have in common: They place their bets on expert, experienced teachers and on careful training of their new teachers. They rely on well-planned, consistent support of teachers to improve their schools continuously.
These two systems are diametrically opposed in one sense: Shanghai relies heavily on testing to meet its goals; Finland emphasizes child-centered methods. Yet they have these important things in common: Neither of them does what the United States is now promoting: They do not hand students over to privately managed schools; they do not accept teachers who do not intend to make teaching their profession; they do not have principals who are non-educators; they do not have superintendents who are non-educators; they do not "turn around" schools by closing them or privatizing them; they do not "improve" schools by firing the principal or the teachers. They respect their teachers. They focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning, as it is defined in their culture and society.
The lesson of PISA is this: Neither of the world's highest-performing nations do what our "reformers" want to do. How long will it take before our political leaders begin to listen to educators? How long will it take before they realize that their strategies have not worked anywhere? How long will it be before they stop inflicting their bad ideas on our schools, our students, our teachers, and American education?Follow my blog every day by bookmarking washingtonpost.com/answersheet. And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at washingtonpost.com/higher-ed Bookmark it!