I Don’t Give a PISA How Well Shanghai Students Test.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 6:54

Tom Friedman has done it again. He has visited China. He has written an article (The Shanghai Secret). He has stirred the hornets nest.

An article he wrote after he visited “some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret — how is it that Shanghai’s public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they’ve learned in math, science and reading”.

An article whose core boils out to two paragraphs

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.

[..] attributes this to the fact that, 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 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.”

Now, I am not going to hold myself up as an expert on China’s Education system (or any education system for that matter), but after teaching MBAs for 5 years, developing local staff (experienced and raw), speaking with academic conferences, and just generally reading articles like this, this is an article that is particularly relevant to what I have seen and been discussing over the last few years.

What (I think) needs to be understood is that Friedman is writing for a largely American audience who has heard about Tiger moms, is seeing their children get slaughtered in American classrooms, and is generally looking for the “secret” to how they can “compete” with the “Chinese” student. Which is relevant (to me) as those who are lining to this article as if it were the gospel do not understand the wider context of how and why “Chinese” students are performing so well.

With that said,Friedman has a few things right:
1) Shanghai public school students are testing at the top of the PISA exams, particularly those in the core of Shanghai where the districts are well funded, where parents are on a higher order of economy, and where the schools infrastructure is now seeing the returns on investment that have been made.
2) The Chinese education system is built around a relentless testing system that kids begin preparing for at 3 years old for, that is reinforced by daily drills, and involves the student’s family.
3) Teachers are a key reason why this system is “working”
4) Teachers in China have been given support that their American counterparts don’t

For me to what I believe is article ultimate failure is that it is (1) written with the underling belief that the ability of students to ace the PISA is a sign of success. As if acing the PISA is the actual goal of education, and (2) holds the teacher up on a pedestal when in reality they are nothing more than a blunt force object that is used to cram as much information as possible into their students minds, threaten them when necessary, and demand recommend they attend cram schools in-between semester so that the teachers can receive a kickback the student can get that extra edge.

Ultimately the open secret that no one discussed in front of Friedman, yet is something nearly every academic I speak with in this country understands (as do those at the top of the country), is that the education system as they have developed it is producing students who are winning a game that they should no longer be playing. With results that no longer help them.

Just as it has not helped the neighboring countries (Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc) who have all fallen into this exact same trap and have been scrambling to remove themselves from. Something that several of my recent projects have been focused on (in Asia)

from my experience, this is a system does do an amazing job at educating the masses, as the PISA test highlights, but it has not done its job to incubate that talent. That is the next step, and if there is something that readers should take away from Friedman’s article, and this blog post, it is that for China to move forward, it will have to be done without the current stock of teachers.

Teachers who have been, to date, excellent at stuffing facts in, but who are unable to draw anything out.

which is Shanghai (China’s) real secret. That, for all the success in skilling up the talent pool over the last 20 years, these teachers are not going to be able to get their students to do anything than test.

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