Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 4:43 PM ET, 12/14/2010

How Shanghai topped PISA rankings -- and why it's not big news in China

By Valerie Strauss

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, 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 And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | December 14, 2010; 4:43 PM ET
Categories:  Standardized Tests  | Tags:  Yong Zhao, diane ravitch, finland and pisa, international test comparisons, international test rankings, international test scores, pisa, pisa rankings, pisa results, shanghai and pisa, shanghai students, u.s. performance on international tests, u.s. performance on pisa  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: College Board promotes holiday gift of ... test prep!
Next: Standardized snake oil -- Brady


In reference to the long, stressful hours put in by the Chinese students with seemingly no relief, we might also want to remember Japan's education system some years ago. In the mid-1970s, Japan was reported to have a similar, harsh approach to education, even in the elementary schools. So much so, that they were marked as having the 'highest child suicide rate' in the world.

I believe Japan does things a little differently now.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 14, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse

Pressure on students are voluntary, the core reason there is so much pressure is the fierce competition, and that comes from insufficient number of post-secondary institutions forcing parents to pressure their kids to compete for the few that do exist, its something China is trying to address but will take some time, considering the country has 1.3 billion people and most of them wants to see their kids get a university degree.

Having said that, it need to be seperated from the test taking nature of education, not all tests are the same, American tests are frequently multiple-choice whereas Chinese tests are mostly full questions. The PISA test belonged to the second group, it was designed to evaluate critical thinking and designing solutions to structured problems, not the typical short answer you see in American schools. If you spend some time reading over the questions you'd know preparing for them isn't as straight forward, by far, as preparing for multi-choice quizzes, and doing well in them tells you a lot more than "test taking" skills, if only because there is no such thing when it comes to the kinds of questions asked in PISA.

Asian parents are notorious for pressuring their kids even if they get an A-, what are looking at definitely has large parts of this element in them, it does not mean there's no problem with China's education system, but it does mean it would be foolish to take the Asian parent's upset reaction at their kids' A- as an indication your kids' C means anything more.

Posted by: iewgnem | December 14, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

An interesting article that gives some details about schools in Finland:

"What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?"

Ah, perhaps Diane Ravitch can do some networking with some teachers in Finland and request some sample tests from Finnish schools. I am thinking that their tests are less littered with lures which can bog down and tangle thought processes. Having never given my own kids tests during their homeschooling years (they did attend public HS), I always felt that knowing the material well (reasoning too) was the point of it all anyway. I kept a keen eye on their regular work, essays, and research projcts. We had interesting discussions aplenty. The interdisciplinary approach worked wonders. Mastery... They were all members of the National Honor Society in HS and graduated from fine universities. Sure, such a homeschooling approach at the school level would be difficult to employ, but it appears that Finland is rather close.

Posted by: shadwell1 | December 14, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Those poor overworked, over-tested East Asian students become the engineers and workers who do most of the world's manufacturing. They build a 5,000 mile high speed rail network in a fraction of the time it will take the US to build a 50 mile segment to nowhere in California.

They are rapidly overtaking the US and Europe in scientific publication and citations (outside sociology, of course, we'll produce plenty of papers about misguided Asian education). Asians and Asian expats in the US and Europe already pull down a large number of Nobel prizes in the sciences - their share will only increase in the future.

But all the US education establishment can say is that these Asians merely know how to take tests. Sure. That's all they learn by hard work.

As Diane Ravitch points out, there are problems with some of our current reform efforts. But they are trying to address a fundamental problem with US education - that our current stock of teachers comes form our dumbest college grads.

Many years ago in my high school, those who could not get into a real college went to what was then Lowell Teachers College. They probably became teachers. There has been no change.

By any measure, education majors are the least accomplished college students. Those who major in education today have the lowest SAT scores of any major for a profession that has traditionally required a college degree (I imagine education majors beat out beautician majors). The same is true for GRE scores for those seeking graduate degrees in education related fields. No wonder those now in teaching so dislike testing - they tested poorly when they were young and want to claim this does not reflect on their actual intelligence.

We need a whole new crop of teachers. They need to be educated individuals, not education majors. We'll need to pay them better too. Let's just make sure we do not waste our tax dollars on the many mediocre teachers we are now stuck with.

A caveat - I do not mean to say that all teachers are idiots. Many are smart, hard working, and effective. But most now in our classrooms would never have been certified to teach under the Finnish standards noted above. As soon as we can find competent replacements, these need to be removed permanently from teaching.

Posted by: ronStrong | December 14, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

Using Professor Yong Zhao to argue the Chinese testing scores is a very very poor one. For one thing, Professor's Zhao himself probably is a great testment for the education quality of Chinese education system, where he went to a school that is nowhere near to be found at the top of the Chinese elite schools (e.g. 211 and 985 schools) and then he used that Chinese preparation to get to US, continued his education, and then become a professor in a good US school. It's funny that Professor Zhao will bash Chinese education system as he probably will not send his kids to the school where he got his university education in China. From my personal learning/working experiences in both top US and Chinese schools and then long-time working experience in reserach & development in a fortune 500 company's R&D center, I have to say that US educators have to take Education Secretary Arne Duncan's comments to heart. One thing I can surely tell you is that in tough R&D field, you will not find anyone with Professor Zhao's background and you can only find Chinese Ph.Ds from China's best schools (e.g. students with best test scores). To be very blunt, innovation is not done by luck or by purely imagination, it's a very hard business and you have to be fully prepared, starting from very early and very young. I will recommend the author of this paper to go to China and do a field research on China's education system, particularly its very complete and unique normal university system for training teachers (not existed in US for such a system). China's current development is no accident, and its education system is the primary factor for leading the success. For people who think that Shanghai cannot represent the whole China, I will ask you to look at its poorest provinces like Gansu province, where you will probably get very similar testing scores in its cities regardless big or small.

Posted by: thecupgr | December 14, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

My name is Gregory. I am an American from New York City living and working in Shanghai China for the past 8+ years. I have been involved in the education training business for all of my time here.
I am reading comments of people who ( I believe) have not spent any time here and know nothing about the stress that is put on children here to do well.
As stated above they do study from sun-up until sun-down, they have no social life outside of their grandparents (both parents work). They have at least 6 people giving them pressure to do well; the parents and both sets of grandparents (one child policy). The peers and teachers also drive home this fact.
I have spoken with numerous students and they all complain of the stress, tremendous amounts of homework and lack of play/personal time. And yes, here in China the students do have a "suicide day" that they are aware of.
Universities here in China in the past decade have been receiving large numbers of students having breakdowns, unable to cope with the stress. Schools have had to employ addition staff for counseling and therapy (though sometimes the therapist approach is that they should "suck it up").
And for the above comment stating that “the education system is just as good in other areas of China”, have you ever been here? I have been to 31 cities inside of mainland and Shanghai is its pride and joy. Many schools in smaller areas have horrible conditions for the children; no glass panes in the windows, no heating in the classrooms (the students usually wear their jackets, hats and gloves in the classrooms. I was in one classroom once and asked the teacher about heat. Her reply to me was, "how many pairs of pants are you wearing today?”To which I replied "two" (jeans and long johns). I was told that the next day I should wear "three".
The teaching here is fixed on test taking. The teachers put information on the board and the students copy it down never questioning the teacher (you should never question your teacher!). They go home and memorize this information for the test. Once the test is done they forget this information in order to remember the new information for the next test (this is the cycle). They are never really taught "why something is" just taught to remember it.
The country knows that their system is broken but it is hard to change it when you are faced with the fact that you have 40, 50 and up to 60 students per class (yes, this is elementary school, Jr. High and High school). How can you allow creative thought and interaction with 60 students, one teacher and 45 minutes?
I have a 1 year old daughter and WILL NOT be educating her here in Shanghai. I will bring her back to the States for her schooling.

Posted by: wildergray | December 14, 2010 11:19 PM | Report abuse

Valerie, I recently hear Dr. Zhao speak in length at the NEA National Council of Urban Education Associations' Conference and spoke with Dr. Ravitch at last June's meeting of the Teacher Union Reform Network. They are both bright, progressive, collaborative, qualified and well versed in the practices and policies of public education.

What I find most puzzling is that Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee and Oprah aren't discussion the data Dr. Zhao and Dr. Ravitch well document in the books they have written. Are they being discounted because they are qualified and offer a different perspective?

Thank you so much for staying current on the public education front and providing us with information we can share with others who share your passion.

Posted by: lacy41 | December 15, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

wildergray, thanks for the insightful post.

Posted by: shadwell1 | December 15, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

In reference to the long, stressful hours put in by the Chinese students with seemingly no relief, we might also want to remember Japan's education system some years ago. In the mid-1970s, Japan was reported to have a similar, harsh approach to education, even in the elementary schools. So much so, that they were marked as having the 'highest child suicide rate' in the world.

I believe Japan does things a little differently now.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 14, 2010 5:00 PM

What a typical racist statement. Japanese and Chinese do not look alike, nor do we think alike!

Posted by: rush_n_crush | December 15, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

Most other countries don't spend any school funds building huge athletic facilities, buying high-tech uniforms and busing kids all over the place to take part in games on school nights. This just doesn't happen. Sports and bands and drama club are private organizations with separate funding streams. The taxpayers that whine about the high per pupil costs are the first to complain if the interscholastic program is cut at all. Stop the apples and oranges comparisons. They are misleading and deceptive.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 15, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

I have been watching the pendulum swing towards standardized testing in the U.S. for the last several years.

At the same time, parents in China are demanding exactly the opposite: they want their children to develop their creativity, and American education is held up as the pinnacle of excellence. Not kidding. Go to China for your next vacation and ask local people what they think of American vs. Chinese education.

So let's at least stop to listen to these parents in China--why are they not excited about the Pisa 2009 high test scores? Why do they want to get away from strict academic standards in school? Is it because they are irresponsible and don't want their children being knowledgeable? No. I'll tell you that it is because they have lived the reality that Americans are currently striving for, and they don't want to have anything more to do with it.

Of course I agree that American education is in crisis, but it is in crisis everywhere around the world, although the types of problems vary. It's just the nature of entering into the 21st century.

Everyone knows we desperately need a new paradigm in education. But I hope people in both countries can be rational about education reform in the context of their own societies and the global society. It takes time, and is very complex.

Education affects EVERYTHING. It's the key to unlocking children's potential and each small change across the board has profound effects that can last for generations. Huge pendulum swings are far less likely to produce the desired results than careful examination and decisive step-by-step action.

Face it, you would not recommend to the Chinese that they exchange their education system for the American model overnight. Why would you not do that? Because you have lived the reality of it and you recognize the flaws in the American education system.

Parents in any country are right to demand excellence from the school systems, but to push the system to make any major policy change without careful planning, teacher training, parent and community education, etc. in the hopes that it is going to fix everything is a dangerous game to play with our kids' futures.

What do I recommend? Before any more major policy changes, Chinese and American educators take time to sit down and really get to know each other's systems, then take the best from each system as is appropriate for their own countries, and make real, lasting, positive change.

For those who are willing to take on this momentous endeavor, I encourage you to continue in your efforts. As is said in China, 加油! (Jia you!)

Posted by: educationis4allchildren | December 15, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

educationis4allchildren said

"Before any more major policy changes, Chinese and American educators take time to sit down and really get to know each other's systems, then take the best from each system as is appropriate for their own countries, and make real, lasting, positive change."

That's a great idea. But our education secretary would never make the effort to know the Chinese system.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 15, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse


Your post was very informative. It's good to hear something from someone who has first hand knowledge.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 15, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse


Probably true. Western policymakers apparently have not read "The Art of War."

Chinese educators have spent a lot of time visiting Western countries and trying to understand our education system, so they can take the ideas and apply them or adjust them for their own situation in China.

In fact, I was helping a Chinese school purchase some educational materials from the U.S. last year, and every publisher I talked to mentioned that the Chinese Dept. of Ed. had also called them within the last year, asking a lot of questions about their products.

That's also how they got ideas for developing their cities--China city government officials at all levels went to the U.S. and other countries to look at their infrastructure, and took the ideas back home (that was pre-9/11). You can imagine that when the Chinese officials contacted some mayor in any U.S. city, that mayor would have proudly shown them around.

They aren't afraid to learn from Western countries, even though we are capitalists.

But anyway, teachers are the ones who can make a real difference in education reform. No need to wait for the ones at the top. No matter what policies are thrown at them, when the classroom door closes, they have the opportunity do their best to both teach the whole child and prepare them for standardized tests. Plenty of teachers are doing it, and those who want to can seek out those teacher mentors to learn from them. That's how the Chinese teachers do it--instead of attending inservices, they visit each other's classes to observe and learn on a regular basis. Free, doesn't require school closure because you need to watch the classes in session, and a lot more effective.

Posted by: educationis4allchildren | December 15, 2010 10:30 PM | Report abuse

US reformers have worked in an environment of political correctness which prohibits them from addressing two factors of immense impact -- work ethic and parental responsibility. No one dares to say that American students are chronically lazy or that American parents don't give a ****, but we know in our heart of hearts that these are major problems.

I am an American teaching in Shanghai for the past several years, and I began my teaching career in California. I observe that fundamental cultural differences between East and West ensure that students here work very hard, delay gratification, and don't rebel against parents or community -- practically dead opposite the practices we reward in the USA. How can you build a culture in which an easy, materialistic life is the reward for narcissistic individualism, and then express total surprise when everybody drops out of school? What are you thinking?

Posted by: Further2Fly | December 16, 2010 1:07 AM | Report abuse

Many people are puzzled by the consistently superior educational attainment of the Finns. I think they give us a pretty good idea how to narrow educational gap and also how to make students lives less stressful: look after the health of your spelling system.

Finland has the world’s simplest orthography. It never uses identical letters for different sounds (such as the English ‘should shoulder shout’) or different spellings for identical sounds (e.g. our ‘scoop soup, prove rule to you’) This makes learning to read and write Finnish exceptionally easy, without any of the stresses and pressures on children, parents or teachers exerted by English literacy acquisition. It also saves vast amounts of time and money, as I have explained at

Nearly all Finnish children learn to read fluently in about 3 MONTHS. The average English-speaking child takes 3 YEARS to become a proficient reader, with 1 in 5 failing to so in 10 years, despite vast expenditure on helping them to so.

Because Finnish children can learn to read well so much faster than English-speaking ones, they are able to access other learning much sooner and with less need for help from adults.

Having to cope with the irregularities of English spelling encumbers Anglophone children with a big educational handicap. When it comes to competing in international education races, they are a bit like runners wearing hobnail boots, while the Finns are kitted out with the latest air-dynamic trainers.

Posted by: mashabell | December 16, 2010 6:26 AM | Report abuse

Mashabell wrote: "Finland has the world’s simplest orthography." and "Having to cope with the irregularities of English spelling encumbers Anglophone children with a big educational handicap."

Both phrases are right, it really is much easier to learn to read Finnish than English. But when this is used to explain the good results of the Finnish 15-year-old teenagers in PISA testings, I have my doubts. Most Finnish students have studied six years of English and at least two years of Swedish at that point, some of them also a third foreign language. So I don't know about the saved time. Most Anglophones are hopelessly monolingual, so they really do have much more time to study other subjects. Maybe we Finns just have a better educational system?

Posted by: orantala | December 21, 2010 6:11 AM | Report abuse

Post a Comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

characters remaining

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company