Global education lessons: China’s mentor schools bridge rich-poor gap

As the US struggles with inequity between richer and poorer school districts,  Shanghai's stellar urban schools offer hands-on help to rural schools with intensive teaching and administrative mentoring.

While American educators struggle to address the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students, the Chinese have turned their attention to their own chronic disparity – that between rural and urban schools.

For nearly a decade, education officials in Shanghai have found success with a mentoring program that pairs high-performing urban schools with poorly funded, lower-performing schools on the agricultural and residential outskirts of this city of 24 million.

The dichotomy is stark – especially because Shanghai astounded the education world in 2009 with a first-place finish in the Program for International Student Assessment test. Though Shanghai is China's largest and wealthiest city, a number of its schools still suffer from what one education official has called "rural culture." Staff are complacent and resistant to change, while teaching methods are outdated and little attention is paid to training. Schools closer to the city center benefit from more funding and a deeper teacher talent pool, with more students pursuing higher education.

The Empowered Administration program aims to level the playing field through weekly mentoring and guidance. Selected rural schools receive a mentor school and $160,000 to use in a two-year partnership. Launched in 2005, the citywide program has 46 school pairings.

Zhang Zhi was principal of the award-winning Yangpu elementary school when he was tapped in 2007 to oversee a partnership with the Qingcun elmentary school on the southern edge of the city. Each week for two years, Mr. Zhang and a group of 10 administrators and teachers traveled to Qingcun for meetings and mentorship activities.

The initial evaluation of Qingcun unearthed a number of challenges: poorly defined responsibilities, a steady drain of teachers and students to better schools, and what Zhang describes as "more administrators than work available."

Zhang's staff immediately laid out a plan for the school. They assigned specific duties to teachers and staff, with monetary rewards for milestones achieved. They launched a lecture series with education experts and offered teacher training. With the infusion of funding – equal to about 5 percent of the school's annual operating budget – they upgraded school infrastructure, experimented with interactive whiteboards, and purchased tables that could be arranged in flexible configurations to replace heavier desks that sat several students each. They also decreased class size from 40-plus students to fewer than 30.

"We encouraged the Qingcun administrators to have a vision for where the school is heading, articulate that to teachers and staff, and make sure everyone is committed to it," Zhang says. Innovating as it went, the team used what Zhang calls the "1+1+n" mentorship, which paired a city teacher with a Qingcun teacher in an intensive three-day process that included an audience of Qingcun teachers. The mentor helped prepare lesson plans, advised on classroom management, and gave feedback on instructional style.

Student and teacher retention rose immediately the second year. Now, four years later, Zhang says the teaching staff has stabilized, and a number of teachers are publishing papers about pedagogy and winning awards for lesson design and instruction. While funding was helpful, Zhang says, no price can be put on the longer-term effects of the transfer of management and teaching procedures.

Citywide, a survey of 43 rural schools that participated in the 2009-11 rotation found that teacher satisfaction rates topped 80 percent. Student retention rates increased: One middle school saw a 10 percent jump in students going on to high school – significant in a country with only nine years of compulsory education.

Yong Zhao, an education scholar from China now based at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, says Empowered Administration is an example of what China does well: redistributing expertise. "Think what might happen in Los Angeles if some of the suburban schools partnered with poorer schools in the city center," says Professor Yong. "It's a great idea."

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