Experts said comparing scores from countries and cities of different sizes is complicated. They also said that the Shanghai scores were not representative of China, since this fast-growing city of 20 million is relatively affluent. Still, they were impressed by the high scores from students in Shanghai.
The results were seen as another sign of China’s growing competitiveness. The United States rankings are a “wake-up call,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.
Although it was the first time China had taken part in the test, which was administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, the results bolstered this country’s reputation for producing students with strong math and science skills.
Many educators were also surprised by the city’s strong reading scores, which measured students’ proficiency in their native Chinese.
The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia — including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong — do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.
Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16.
“Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do,” said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “So if the test is on math and science, there’s no doubt Chinese students will win the competition.”
But many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.
“These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests,” Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing, wrote in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the test results were announced. “For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”
In an interview, Mr. Jiang said Chinese schools emphasized testing too much, and produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently.
“It creates very narrow-minded students,” he said. “But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators.”
This is a common complaint in China. Educators say an emphasis on standardized tests is partly to blame for the shortage of innovative start-ups in China. And executives at global companies operating here say they have difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems.
In many ways, the system is a reflection of China’s Confucianist past. Children are expected to honor and respect their parents and teachers.
“Discipline is rarely a problem,” said Ding Yi, vice principal at the middle school affiliated with Jing’An Teachers’ College. “The biggest challenge is a student who chronically fails to do his homework.”
While the quality of schools varies greatly in China (rural schools often lack sufficient money, and dropout rates can be high), schools in major cities typically produce students with strong math and science skills.
Shanghai is believed to have the nation’s best school system, and many students here gain admission to America’s most selective colleges and universities.
In Shanghai, teachers are required to have a teaching certificate and to undergo a minimum of 240 hours of training; higher-level teachers can be required to have up to 540 hours of training. There is a system of incentives and merit pay, just like the systems in some parts of the United States.
“Within a teacher’s salary package, 70 percent is basic salary,” said Xiong Bingqi, a professor of education at Shanghai Jiaotong University. “The other 30 percent is called performance salary.”
Still, teacher salaries are modest, about $750 a month before bonuses and allowances — far less than what accountants, lawyers or other professionals earn.
While Shanghai schools are renowned for their test preparation skills, administrators here are trying to broaden the curriculums and extend more freedom to local districts. The Jing’An school, one of about 150 schools in Shanghai that took part in the international test, was created 12 years ago to raise standards in an area known for failing schools.
The principal, Zhang Renli, created an experimental school that put less emphasis on math and allows children more free time to play and experiment. The school holds a weekly talent show, for example.
The five-story school building, which houses Grades eight and nine in a central district of Shanghai, is rather nondescript. Students wear rumpled school uniforms, classrooms are crowded and lunch is bused in every afternoon. But the school, which operates from 8:20 a.m. to 4 p.m. on most days, is considered one of the city’s best middle schools.
In Shanghai, most students begin studying English in first grade. Many middle school students attend extra-credit courses after school or on Saturdays. A student at Jing’An, Zhou Han, 14, said she entered writing and speech-making competitions and studied the erhu, a Chinese classical instrument. She also has a math tutor.
“I’m not really good at math,” she said. “At first, my parents wanted me to take it, but now I want to do it.”Continue reading the main story
The western world watches China's rise as a formidable world-power with a mixture of awe and apprehension. Sci-fi films depict a futuristic world where Baidu.com is the new Google and Mcdonalds has been replaced by Grandma Wang's Dumpling Emporium. And yet again Shanghai is number one on the Programme for International Student Assessment's (Pisa) 2012 ranking list of international education, and the US is once again at a low rank, this time 36th place. The US is desperate, and naturally the Chinese educational system seems like an answer. But let me tell you – this is not the case. I know; for two years I attended a local Shanghainese high school and this is the truth: they are terrible.
The biggest problem with Chinese education? It's medieval. Shanghainese education is just like the stories my grandmother tells about high school in the 1940's. Footage of military parades in Fascist Italy share an unnerving resemblance to the morning assemblies from my school in Shanghai. Chinese education would be a poison for America, not a remedy.
The problem is that there are too many Chinese students. Shanghainese classrooms have about 40 students and in the countryside classes have over 60. The most efficient way to organize all these children is by testing, categorizing and grading them – Chinese education is essentially elitist. Students that excel in school are rewarded with prizes and encouragement, but struggling students are abandoned. I once served as a translator for the principal of my school when seven Swedish principals came to visit Shanghai. The Swedes asked what the school did for students with "special needs" and the principal answered:
The special students who are doing well in class? We make sure to put a lot of focus on them.
This Chinese principal didn't understand the concept of special needs, and neither does the Chinese educational system.
A major reason why certain students do poorly in China is that their skills are ignored. Creativity and critical thinking are seen as objects of western frivolousness. Although Chinese students analyze literature, they never write essays and instead they simply memorize the texts. I have never memorized so much in my life as I did in Shanghai. The ideal Shanghainese student is like a sea sponge blindly absorbing any and all information and spewing it all out during the tests. The system in the US is not ideal – nobody can call the SAT a platform for creativity – but the American system does at least encourage questions and tries to make students into critical thinkers. If there are Chinese students with a critical mind, they are almost always self-taught.
The Chinese educational system produces millions of test-taking experts. The culmination of this test-taking mania is the Gaokao, the national university entrance exam. Much like the SAT, these exams give you a certain amount of points and these points correspond to the university you may attend. In 2006, a record high 9.5 million students took these tests. All three years of high school are devoted to the exams, and teachers refer to them continually.
In the last year the entire senior grade is usually sent off to another campus to make sure that they are not distracted from their study by social life. Many of my friends agree that the test is useless – the calculus problems and memorized literature will not be of any use in the future – but they have no choice. This is the way the system works, and to succeed in life they have to follow it.
So obviously when the Shanghainese students have a Pisa test placed in front of them, they complete it without having to think twice. Chinese children have been taking tests since the arrival of their milk teeth. The system breeds Pisa champions, but it also ruins young lives.
Should America follow China? Absolutely not, so stop the rumors. American education isn't perfect, but while following Shanghai might mean higher Pisa scores, it would be disastrous for the nation's children and its future.