Lessons From the World's Best Public School

Lessons from the world’s best public school Daniel Traub for Newsweek

Jinjing Liu, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Meilong Intermediate in central Shanghai—and part of the best education system in the world's most populous country—is ticking off her normal class schedule: "Physics, chemistry, math, Chinese, English, Chinese literature, geography…the usual stuff," she says in impeccable English.

That's not Jinjing's school day schedule; that's her workload each and every Sunday. The Lord may have rested on the seventh day, but Jinjing studies, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. She relates this over lunch on a Saturday afternoon, "the only day," she acknowledges, that she has "any free time to relax." And lest you think she is some whiz-bang academic geek on the fast track to Tsinghua, China's M.I.T., think again. Ask who else in her high school has that Sunday routine and she says, "Pretty much everyone."

Over the past several years, the Shanghai public school system has drawn global envy—and stirred controversy—by acing an international test given every few years by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that seeks to measure the quality of school systems globally. In 2009 (the first time the city participated in the test) and again in 2012, Shanghai finished first out of 66 locations surveyed in the so-called PISA exams (Program for International Student Assessment) in the three key disciplines: reading, science and mathematics. At the same time, the test showed the United States dropping lower in the global standings in all three disciplines, most precipitously in math.

Predictably, at a time of increasing public concern about public education, the results prompted consternation in the U.S., where, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, only 25 percent of high school graduates are academically prepared to succeed in college. In the minds of many, China's economic rise is clearly linked to its academic success, so it is perhaps not surprising that the OECD ranking elicited another reaction among America's chattering class: defensiveness, and some denial. The digital magazine Slate headlined an article "Why We Need to Stop Letting China Cheat on International Education Rankings." (Now that'll make your kids smarter!) And a columnist for London's Guardian purported to reveal the deep, dark secret that somehow eludes the OECD test-givers in a piece titled "Here's the Truth About Shanghai Schools: They're Terrible."

The controversy surrounding Shanghai's schools—and their success on the exam—has its roots in the centuries-old traditions of education in China. A teacher is the most exalted figure of respect outside of a student's parents. The teacher speaks, the student listens. More than listen, the student memorizes and needs to be able to spit back virtually everything he or she is taught. Discussion and debate are rare—never challenge the teacher—and the notion of independent problem solving as a goal of high school education is only now starting to be a priority for Shanghai's educators. The emphasis on speed and memorization of obscure facts, critics have long said, does not necessarily produce the kind of students who are able to flourish in a rapidly changing modern economy.

In the best U.S. public high schools there is usually a wide variety of extracurricular activities—sports, band or the chess club—and university admission officers give kids credit for excelling outside the classroom. In Shanghai, and in China more broadly, the notion that anything other than academic excellence should determine where a student goes to college has only recently been given any credence. The high school curriculum isn't innovative: math, sciences, language, literature. But what the Asia Society, in a comprehensive report on Chinese education, called "the examination funnel" diminishes the importance of subjects not tested (typically, four are on the test: Chinese literature and language, mathematics, a foreign language and one subject of a student's choice, which is usually the presumed focus of his or her major in college).

A group of boys plays basketball at Wei Yu Middle School in central Shanghai. Daniel Traub for Newsweek

Preposterously Important Exam

The notion that Shanghai's schools are "terrible" is, to put it mildly, silly. The 5,000 students who took the OECD exam don't game the system, or cheat or possess some magical test-taking gene. They did well for a handful of reasons. Parents are intimately involved in their children's education; the vast majority make sure their children do their work in school, and at home—hours and hours of homework. And in the case of Jinjing and many of her ninth-grade classmates, they even put in 10-hour days on Sunday, when, it's safe to say, most of their peers in the United States are sleeping late, playing computer games and uploading Vines.

Shanghai's teachers are monitored relentlessly—and ranked ruthlessly by how well their students do on exams. "Teacher training is a career-long endeavor," says Zhang Minxuan, president of Shanghai Normal University, one of the city's elite colleges, and until recently a key policymaker in the city's education bureau. "Helping teachers improve if their students aren't doing well is a vital part of any school administration's mission."

That does not mean getting rid of poor teachers—something some education reformers in the U.S. argue is critical. In Shanghai, in fact, it's even more difficult to get rid of a bad teacher than it is in most urban systems in the U.S. "Basically," one Shanghai principal says, "they have to commit some sort of crime" to be dismissed.

It's also important to note that Shanghai is not representative of all Chinese public education. The country's business and finance capital is one of its richest cities, and the majority of China's children still live in poor rural areas. There is a profound difference between the best public high schools in Shanghai and the education a peasant kid gets. It is also true that there are millions of migrant workers in Shanghai who lack the required residence permit and are thus excluded from the city's public school system. Critics of the PISA exam say that's one reason the test doesn't accurately reflect the overall quality of the city's education system, since those kids aren't tested. (The government has set up special schools for the children of migrants that are nowhere near the quality of the regular public schools.)

So Shanghai's success on an international exam like the PISA does not mean China's entire educational system is better than the U.S.'s. The better comparison is big city to big city: Shanghai versus New York or Los Angeles. But the results show that Shanghai is doing something right—if not necessarily everything, or for everyone.

Jinjing gets up at 6 every morning, is in school by 7:30 and stays until 6 every evening. There are 1,200 students at her school, and the average class size is about 40 students. The school's facilities are first-rate but not lavish: There are computer rooms and decent athletic facilities, outdoor basketball courts and a running track. She gets home and eats dinner at around 6:30, then does homework every weeknight until 11 p.m.—"and sometimes later," she says. Both her parents are government attorneys and work full time, but at least one—and sometimes both—is by her side as she does her homework. Checking it, correcting it, answering questions when possible.

Ask Jinjing if this seems "obsessive" and she shrugs, replying with the Chinese version of "it is what it is." Her mother, Xiaomei, explains, "Education is pretty much everything. Here, if you succeed in primary school, you will go to a good high school. If you succeed in high school, you will go to a good college and get a good job." Academic success will also, she notes, determine who you will meet and eventually marry—a husband, in her daughter's case, who will have also succeeded and thus has a good job and is able to provide a good life for her daughter's future family. The difference between China and the U.S., Xiaomei offers, "is that in the U.S. a truck driver can make a decent living, have a good life. That's not really so here."

She says this matter-of-factly, describing a system that is relentlessly competitive, that aims to cull the best from the rest. And on this journey, the ninth grade is vitally—or, say the system's critics, preposterously—important. The most famous high-pressure exam Chinese high school students take is called the gaokao; it's taken at the end of their senior year and is all-important in determining how good the university a student attends is. Think of it as the SAT times about 100. (Other East Asian countries—Japan, South Korea—have a similar test.)

At the end of ninth grade, students take a similarly pressure-packed exam, known as the zhongkao, that determines whether they get into an elite public high school. Parents in Shanghai often treat this exam as more important than the college-entry exam. Do well on the ninth-grade exam, the thinking goes, and a child is likely to succeed on the college exam. He or she will go to a better high school, with better teachers, and compete with brighter kids. This is where the culling begins.

Jinjing is just over one month away from taking the zhongkao, and she bears the looming pressure with an equanimity that seems beyond her years. Teachers at her school limit things like physical education classes to give students more time to prepare, in large part because their own evaluations are so dependent on how well their students do on this test. Occasionally they'll even hurry students along at the cafeteria, telling them to eat their lunches more quickly so they can get back to the classroom.

China's educational administrators have come to acknowledge that the exam system puts too much stress on students. Zhang, the Shanghai Normal University president, concedes that it's a bit much to have a single test determine a child's path in life. "We're in the process of trying to reduce somewhat the importance of the exams," he says. "Other things should be considered in evaluating a student."

Still, he notes that the exam system isn't going away: "Examinations have been part of Chinese education for centuries, and they are fair." At a time in China when parents worry about corruption playing a role in which child gets into what school, this matters. Everyone takes the same test, and no matter where you're from, rich or poor, if you do well, you will be able to attend a quality university.

Jinjing agrees that the homework assigned is "too much. It's excessive." But she does it. And she has her academic sights set high. Asked her choice if she could go to Fudan University (Shanghai's best college), Stanford University or Oxford, she doesn't hesitate: "Oxford."

Why? In part, she says with a smile, because on Saturdays—her one day of relative rest (she always does at least a bit of homework)—she's been watching the TV series Downton Abbey. "I really like it."

Students in class at Xi Wai International School in the Songjiand District of suburban Shanghai. Daniel Traub for Newsweek

Bailing Out

Jinjing has not taken the PISA exam—it will next be given to ninth-graders in 2015—but she exemplifies the best of Shanghai's schools. She is disciplined and determined, and her parents are very involved. (By contrast, 25 percent of American children are now raised in one-parent households, and that jumps to 67 percent for African-American.)

The problem for Shanghai's educational establishment—and more broadly, China's—is illustrated by another ninth-grade girl at a nearby intermediate school, and her parents. All three have had enough. They are bailing out.

As Chen Li's parents watched her labor over her homework until 11 or midnight every night, they grew frustrated. They were exasperated when she told them of classmates who come home at 6, eat dinner, take a nap until midnight and then wake up and study for the rest of the night before going to school in the morning. "Crazy," her mother, Yu Jaiyi, says.

Mother and daughter deliver the standard critique of Shanghai's system—and by extension China's. The emphasis on rote learning, on memorization, borders on the surreal, Chen says. She was exasperated not just by the fact that she had to learn to recite long Chinese poems but also because she had to explain the meaning of the poem using the precise words the teacher had used. "You not only had to memorize the poem, you then had to memorize what the meaning of the poem is, not by thinking about it yourself, and expressing it yourself, but by memorizing the answer," Chen says. "What is the point of that?"

She is a good student, but she became bored by the emphasis on the looming zhongkao exam. "Too much rests on that," her mother says.

Chen's mother founded and runs a moderately successful advertising agency; her father is a professor of information technology at a good university. They own some real estate in Shanghai that has gone up in value over the past decade, and she has an aunt who moved to Vancouver, Canada, a few years ago. Just a few months ago, over the Chinese New Year holiday, her parents had a long talk. They decided to sell some of their real estate and take advantage of the investment green card program in Canada, in which an immigrant can move and work there by investing a minimum of $800,000 Canadian, or about $725,000. A month ago, they bought a coffee shop and a clothes store in Victoria, British Columbia. Soon they will buy a house—"Real estate there is so much cheaper than here," says Yu with a smile. Her daughter dropped out of school a month ago and is now studying English full time. She is very happy that she won't be taking the zhongkao next month.

Shanghai's schools drove them out, they say, although Chen adds that the "air quality and [concerns] about food safety" also helped her parents decide.

Not many parents in Shanghai have the means to make the kind of move Chen's family did. But other options are emerging. They are exemplified by a school like Xiwai International in suburban Shanghai. Started in 2005, the private school offers a pre-K through 12th-grade education and is squarely aimed at middle-class parents. The tuition, unlike that at many private schools in Shanghai, is reasonable. And the curriculum, says principal Lin Min, is a blend of standard Chinese public school fare with, he hopes, a slightly more Western emphasis on problem solving and creative thinking.

The school also takes risks most public schools in this city will not: Later this semester, for example, senior students will make a trip to the Xinjiang region in western China, where they will learn about the lifestyle and culture of the resident Uighurs, Muslims who have tense relations with the local Han Chinese population and with the government. The chance to see and interact with people whose lifestyles are "vastly different from the average Shanghai middle-class student—to live with them, eat with them, study with them—is very important," says Lin, the principal. "We're trying to add to traditional book learning and homework. This will be real-world life experience. It will broaden [the students'] horizons."

The school's enrollment has jumped sharply over the past decade, proving there is a thirst among a fair number of Chinese parents for a different, slightly less intense style of primary education. The Chinese authorities, in both Shanghai and Beijing, know this. Two years ago, in one of his last acts in the education bureau, Zhang helped put together what's called the "Green" education initiative for the local school system. The effort includes specific goals; among them, he says, is to get teachers to assign less homework and to try to make sure kids get at least one more hour of sleep each night.

They've also begun to try to work with universities to credit students in the admissions process for excellence in extracurricular activities—sports, drama, music—as is standard in the U.S. "It's a process," Zhang says. "It'll take some time. Believe me, we know we have issues to address."

But adopting the Western style wholesale isn't going to happen. Shanghai's public schools can often seem like an alternative universe compared with a lot of high schools in urban America. Chen says she heard that in some places in the U.S. and Canada, kids who study really hard are called geeks or nerds, and are mocked.

In Shanghai, she notes, "it's the opposite. If you're not studious, if you're not a nerd, kids make fun of you."

If you don't study, you're not cool. That may be the most useful lesson the rest of the world can glean from what Shanghai is doing right.

With reporting by Newsweek staff in Shanghai.