No secret to Shanghai’s success in education | Inquirer Opinion

No secret to Shanghai’s success in education

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is a study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students in nations all over the world in three areas of competencies—math, science and reading—on a 1000-point scale. It is run every three years to inform better education policies and outcomes of the participating countries.

When Shanghai consistently topped the Pisa in 2009 and 2012 (613 in math, 580 in science, 570 in reading), dislodging the 2006 top scorer Finland, the world could not but take notice. After all, Shanghai was not even among the Top 5 ranking countries in science that included Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan and Estonia.  In 2012, it was big news in the Pisa circuit that Asian countries were the top scorers—in descending order, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau and Japan—along with Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.


That was a major reason the Teach for All Retreat for its network of 32 member-countries, including Teach for the Philippines, was held in Shanghai, and the annual global conference in Tengchong in Yunnan, in October last year. (Another important reason was that the Teach for China group headed by Andrea Pasinetti was a willing and most accommodating chapter host.) All were eager to know: What is Shanghai doing that we are not doing and can learn from? Its feat was deemed a wakeup call for educational systems the world over.

Undeniably a key figure in the educational reforms that have made Shanghai a front-runner is the dynamic president of Shanghai Normal University, Zhang Minxuan.  Zhang’s passion and commitment to excellent education and equity for all students were apparent and contagious. He discussed the guiding principles behind Shanghai’s success story: families’ high expectations for their children to excel; a prevailing culture that rigorous effort is constantly needed with no slackening of pace or blurring of focus; China’s zeal and determination to make education a priority area of development; and, over and over again, the commitment to eradicate inequality in education.


On a more pragmatic level, Zhang named the drastic systemic changes that had to be undertaken. Investment in professional development was a top priority. Teachers collaborated on lesson planning, and learned from and observed one another. Teachers were actually given more free time from their teaching schedules to participate in conferences and learning opportunities with other schools.

More resources were provided schools that needed them, so that all schools, whether in the city or in remote areas, could offer their students the same opportunities.  There were also tangible incentives for teachers and school administrators who went beyond what was expected of them, especially in the more challenging systems.

Another practice is the system involving “receiving/giving schools,” a partnership between a school that excels with another that can use a helping hand. This highlights best practices and revitalizes the needy school “like a blood transfusion.”  It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, with both schools necessarily improving.

Excellent teachers were recognized through monetary rewards and professional development and, along with this, a conscious effort to elevate the status of the teaching profession. Teachers were required to take and pass an exam every five years in order to continue in their jobs.

Zhang described the types of teachers we are familiar with: those who view teaching as nothing more than a means of livelihood, those who teach to develop students, and those who love their students selflessly no matter what kind of students they are assigned to reach.

Valuable, too, was the system of evaluations, with teachers evaluating their school officials, and parents, students and other teachers evaluating the teachers.

It is important that there is strategic agreement and consciousness among schools on these factors known to generate the greatest impact for student and teacher development.


It is interesting that Zhang, who heads a university that trains and graduates teachers and boasts of world-class facilities that give evidence to the importance Shanghai places on education, never had formal teacher training.  Sent to a rural area as a young man during the Cultural Revolution, he was assigned to teach the children because he was the most educated man in the region.  This he did for eight years, and it transformed him into a lifelong advocate for excellence and equity for China’s students.

Shanghai’s high Pisa scores validate the benefits of its educational reforms.  But Zhang knows that these are just numerical ratings. “We participate in such tests to use them as a mirror, to see how we look, draw on best practices, identify weak links and improve on them.” He has also said in an earlier interview that the process of learning is much more important.

Why, all these appear like common sense and what sound educational practice is all about.  Nothing revolutionary, it seems, but these leave us with much food for thought and covetous of China’s firm and unwavering resolve to focus on education.

The Philippines has not undergone the Pisa, and with good reason.  Perhaps when K-to-12 is fully implemented, we will be better prepared to look in the mirror.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] is chair of the National Book Development Board,  a trustee of Teach for the Philippines and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Commentary, education, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, opinion, Pisa, Programme for International Student Assessment, Shanghai
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