How did Shanghai's schools get so good?

When the OECD's Program for International Student Student Assessment test -- a triennial student performance test measuring schools in about 70 developed countries and a few select regions in China and India -- was first administered in Shanghai, it was "much to the annoyance of hotel and restaurant owners in Helsinki," Ben Jensen joked today at an event at the Center for American Progress. Finland had long dominated nearly every international measure of student performance and had attracted a steady stream of international education experts trying to discover the Nordic country's secret. 

But on the most recent PISA rankings, taken in 2009, Shanghai blew away the competition, scording highest in the world for student performance in reading, science, and math. A new report by Jensen, director of the School Education Program at Australia's Grattan Institute, looks into how the world's largest city managed to achieve this:

For a number of years now, the Shanghai approach to schooling has garnered worldwide attention due to its students’ impressive performance on international assessments. Results from one of the most respected of these assessments, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, ranked Shanghai as the world’s highest-performing education system in 2009. The student assessment, which is conducted every three years, evaluates the math, reading, and science skills of 15-year-old students from more than 70 countries. According to the most recent results available, from the 2009 administration, the average 15-year-old student in Shanghai performs at a math level that is 33 months ahead of the average 15-year-old student in the United States. The performance gap in science is 23 months, and the performance gap in reading literacy is 17 months.[...]

Just as impressive is the fact that Shanghai’s high academic performance is matched by greater equity. This means that there is little difference in student performance across economic strata. While a student from a poor family or community in the United States is more likely to fall behind academically than his or her peers, the same isn’t true of poor students in Shanghai. In fact, the poorest 10 percent of students in Shanghai perform at a level in math that is on average 28 months ahead of the poorest 10 percent of students in the United States. What’s more, the achievement gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students in Shanghai is smaller than the achievement gap in the United States.

More impressive, this level of quality and equity has been achieved at the same time the city has grown from a population of 16.7 million in 2000 to mored than 23 million today -- many of them living in the city's sprawling outlying areas. 

In attempting to identify what Shanghai does differently from other large areas, Jensen and his coauthor Joanna Farmer focus on a program in which higher performing schools are paired with lower performing ones in order to improve overall performance:

The empowered-management program contracts high-performing schools to work with low-performing schools—usually for a two-year period—in order to turn around their performance. Teachers and school leaders from both schools move between the two schools building capacity and developing effective practices to turn around the low-performing school.

School-district officials in Shanghai match the low- and high-performing schools. Once two schools are matched, the high-performing school is contracted to turn around the performance of the low-performing school. Extensive monitoring and evaluation ensures that the high-performing school is only paid under the terms of the contract if they are deemed to have been successful in turning around the performance of the lesser-performing school. The contract can be terminated and payments can be withheld if they are not successful.

A program like this, obviously, requires a fairly powerful centralized educational bureaucracy to identify the schools and manage their pairing. Centralization was a pretty central theme of today's event at CAP on what U.S. schools can learn from other countries

Marc Tucker of the Washington-based National Center on Education and the Economy, who was also presenting a paper today, argued that one common feature of countries with high-performing school systems is "highly regarded, well-staffed ministries of education at the state or national levels that have the capacity to design and implement the kinds of complex, highly coherent, and powerful education systems now needed." Tucker would like to see more powerful departments of education at the U.S. state level, as well as more autonomy for schools themselves, cutting out the middleman of local and county school districts. 

Centralizing power in the national, or even state governments is a tough political sell in the U.S. There's a classic line about the French minister of education being able to look at his watch and know what every student at every grade level in the country is studying at that exact time. In the U.S. political context, the line is usually used as an example of centralization-gone-mad -- and for what it's worth, France actually scores lower than the United States in science and reading on the PISA, so centralization obviously isn't the whole answer -- but it's certainly worth asking what more centrally planned systems can teach us about teaching.

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

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