Shanghai test scores have everyone asking: How did students do it?

Shanghai, China, trounced the competition in an international test of 15-year-olds. The Programme for International Student Assessment measures skills in math, science, and reading.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters
A person holds the 2009 OECD education report, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Dec. 7.

When the results of an international education assessment put Shanghai and several other Asian participants ahead of the US and much of Western Europe, many Americans were shocked. “Top test scores from Shanghai stun educators” read the headline in The New York Times.

Meanwhile, many education and Asia experts felt vindicated. After years of saying that China was rapidly catching up or surpassing the US and the rest of the West in education, here was hard proof.

The assessment, released Tuesday and conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), measures academic capabilities in math, science, and reading among OECD member nations and a few dozen other countries and what it calls economic partners, such as Shanghai. The scores come from the results of a test taken by 15-year-olds in these countries. There was no evaluation of China as a whole. Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao were all assessed separately.

Shanghai trounced the OECD average: in reading, it got a 556, versus a 493 OECD average; in science, the score was 575 versus 501; and in math, there was a difference of more than 100 points – a 600 in Shanghai versus a 496 average. For a country that emerged only 30-plus years ago from the Cultural Revolution – when education was saturated with politics and many children lost years of schooling – the results left many observers with one question: How did they do it?

Experts ascribe Shanghai’s success to China's assessment that academic achievement is foremost the result of hard work rather than a good teacher or innate talent.

“Students not only work harder, but they attribute their academic success to their own work,” says James Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA who has conducted research on the Chinese educational system. “Chinese students say the most important factor is studying hard. They really believe that’s the root of success in learning.”

That emphasis on hard work is complemented by several other key practices: active engagement by parents, early efforts to build up attention spans, and families' emphasis on spending long hours in school and on homework while doing little else. Parents and students alike believe that buying in has a payoff – future success.

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Growing reach of higher education

Only in recent years has a university education become relatively accessible to most Chinese, rather than only to the highest-achieving students, says Kevin Miller, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Unlike American students, who can often make up for a poor high school performance by applying themselves in community college, Chinese children think they must must excel in secondary school in order to have any chance at higher education.

As Gong Hebi, a Shanghai native now studying at McGill University in Montreal, explains in an e-mail, “My classmates all took scores seriously, because we thought that it was the only way to live a decent life in the future. We all saw the social disparity in Shanghai and knew what a degree meant.”

A buy-in from the teachers

Dr. Miller, a longtime observer of the Chinese educational system, has seen sweeping differences in the classroom.

In one study, he sat in first-grade math classes in the US and in Beijing and tracked the number of students who were paying attention throughout the lesson. At the end, about 90 percent of Chinese first graders were still following the lesson. Only about half of the Americans were.

The phenomenon was noted in the PISA report as well: “Typically in a Shanghai classroom, students are fully occupied and fully engaged. Non-attentive students are not tolerated,” it said.

The difference in instructional techniques plays a big role, Miller says. Chinese teachers tended to spend a long time giving instructions in the beginning, while American teachers gave cursory instructions then corrected students as the lesson continued. American students’ attention wandered when they became confused.

Another difference, particularly in math instruction, stood out to both Dr. Stigler and Miller. The US teaches procedurally in math, they noted – repetition of the same procedures until a student can remember reflexively how to solve a particular type of math problem. In China, students are encouraged to understand the connections between each step of the problem so that they can think their way through them, even if the order is forgotten.

In the US, we “do things over and over again until they sink in,” Miller says. “You don’t really know something until you can explain why you do this, why you don’t do that.”

Once one student in the classroom explains a problem correctly, the next student has to explain it, too. That is often repeated until most or all of the students can confidently work their way through a problem, Miller says. It’s a bit different from the US practice of calling on one or two raised hands, then moving on.

Shanghai stands out even in the country that stands out

Shanghai stands apart even from some of China’s other major cities. It invests heavily in education research and “is at the forefront of doing research to help teachers teach better,” Miller says. It's been permitted to change its methods of examination and has experimented with its curriculum more than almost any place in China, according to the PISA report, which calls Shangahi a “leader in reform."

Of course, Shanghai is not representative of the country as a whole. While education is universal at the primary and junior secondary level in Shanghai, and almost universal at the secondary level, it lags significantly in western China and rural areas across the country.

But those who argue that Shanghai’s success doesn’t mean much because the results come from Shanghai, not China as a whole, are dismissing something important, Stigler says.

“Shanghai is a city of 20 million people. It doesn’t matter that the rural areas aren’t in there. ... In any city of 20 million people, there’s a lot of diversity and variability. It is a remarkable achievement that scores are so high.”

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