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On Borrowing Best Practices and Even Better Policies

Last week, I attended the Second International Summit on the Teaching Profession in New York City.  Like the first, this is a meeting of education ministers and teachers' union heads from countries around the world, most of which outperform the United States.  They've been talking about the strategies they've been using to improve their education systems.  Like the first Summit, it is fascinating.

Just before the Summit, the Asia Society, one of the Summit's sponsors, invited the top delegates from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan to share their views on some questions posed by Tony Jackson, the director of Asia Society's education program.  In this blog and several to follow, I will draw on this session and on the discussion at the summit for some observations about the major issues the United States is facing in education.

I'll start with some remarks made by Zhang Minxuan, the head of the Chinese delegation, at the Asia Society event.  Dr. Zhang is the Deputy Director of the Shanghai Education Commission and President of Shanghai Normal University.  In both of those positions, he has played a central role in devising the strategies that have propelled Shanghai to the very top of the OECD PISA league tables of national education performance.

In response to a question from Tony Jackson about how the people of Shanghai think about equity in education, Dr. Zhang said that ten years ago, the people of Shanghai just wanted schooling.  Now they want high quality schooling.  No one, he said, questions equity as a goal.  Everyone wants all Chinese students to have the same good opportunities to get a good education.  The question is how to achieve that goal.  It is relatively easy to achieve it with respect to things like physical facilities (I'll explain what he meant by that below).  The really hard part is making sure that all students have access to really good teachers.

After looking all over the world at the ways various countries addressed this issue, the Shanghai Education Commission decided to ask the best school principals and their faculties to take responsibility for managing other schools that perform less well.  Now the best school principals manage up to six schools.  When they do that, they often send some of their best teachers to the poor-performing schools for which they take responsibility.  Those teachers are, of course, very successful in those schools, and the result is that support grows among the whole faculty for making one of these teachers the new principal in that school.  In that way, over time, one good school and five bad ones become six good schools.

Guess where Dr. Zhang said the Shanghai Education Commission got the idea for doing this?  The answer is the United States.  They looked at the way our big city districts were inviting for-profit firms to take over poor-performing city schools.  They noticed that the results were usually not what we hoped for.  But they thought that this was to be expected.  For-profit firms would be more efficient, but not likely to prove better educators.  So they took the part of the idea that they liked—competent managers taking responsibility for managing multiple poor-performing schools—and ditched the part they did not think would work for them—having for-profit firms run the formerly poor-performing schools.  The result is dramatic improvements in low-performing schools.

I mentioned a moment ago that Dr. Zhang said that the easy part was fixing inequities in the distribution of quality physical facilities and other resources that did not involve human beings.  He said that the idea for introducing more equity into the distribution of such resources came from their visits to Switzerland.  They noticed that the richer cantons (like US states) in that country routinely shared some of their wealth with the poorer cantons, thus making the distribution of financial resources across Switzerland more equitable.  So that's what is now going on in China.  Wealthier parts of Shanghai are sharing their resources with poorer parts of Shanghai to even out the distribution of education resources in that enormous city, and the national government is sharing resources across China so that schools in poorer provinces in the China's interior have a chance to catch up with the remarkable improvements in education made by the richer provinces along the eastern and southern coasts of China.  It would be like the United States government implementing a deliberate policy of shifting resources for education from the wealthier states on our coasts to improve the schools in the poorer states in the south and interior west of the country.

Note that China did not simply borrow the ideas it is using.  It looked hard at what it saw elsewhere, took the wheat and left the chaff.  That is what it takes to go beyond borrowing to improving on the best of what you find elsewhere.  That is how the good become the best.
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