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Educational Insights From Shanghai

Betsy Brown Ruzzi, the Director of our Center on International Education Benchmarking and I decided a while back that we needed to take a group of NCEE's senior staff to several of the top-performing countries that we've been studying over the years so they could see for themselves what the two of us have seen on our many trips.  We recently returned from the first of these trips—to Shanghai. I thought I would share some of our team's observations with you.

One member of our team began by saying that he had expected to see schools full of students memorizing, drilling and practicing, lined up in rows at their desks in rather grim classrooms in which discipline was the order of the day.  The students, he said, were orderly and well behaved, but the classrooms were anything but grim.  What came through in every classroom in every school, he said, was the warmth, the feeling on the part of the students that they were loved by the faculty, the genuine affection the faculty had for the students.  The schools were joyous places.  This, he said, seemed to be the foundation for everything else he observed.

Second, he pointed out that the students seemed to be paying close attention to what was going on, not because they expected to get their hands slapped if they didn't, but because the lessons were beautifully crafted, clearly designed to be as engaging as possible.  Most of the classrooms we visited were lined with other teachers who were collaborating in the design of these lessons.  They worked together over months to build the most effective lessons they could, critiquing each version, adding new ideas, testing them out, until the whole group was satisfied that the lesson was as good as it could be.

Another member of our team reported being stunned by the ratio between prep time and teaching time in the Shanghai schools we visited.  In the U.S., she said, teachers typically have one hour to prepare for five classes.  In the Shanghai schools, they have four hours to prepare for two hours of teaching. This, she said, makes all the difference.  Teachers can use this time to collaborate with other teachers to craft great lessons, to talk with other teachers about particular students' learning needs and how they might work together to address them, or to do the research needed to get ready to do another improvement project. 

We talked for awhile about what it meant to do research as a teacher in Shanghai.  All teachers are expected to do it, and getting good at is it one of the criteria for moving up the career ladder.  We concluded that doing research as a teacher in Shanghai does not mean the same thing as doing research in the United States, with its heavy emphasis on quantitative data gathering and statistical analysis.  Teacher research in Shanghai is instead focused on reading relevant literature and taking it into account in planning improvement projects and then being deliberately reflective as one undertakes the project, considering what is working and what is not, correcting course accordingly and so on.  It is, in other words, a disciplined and reflective way to go about the work of continuous improvement in the school.  What fascinated our team was the way teachers were expected to write short papers about the research they had done and to publish these research papers in a range of juried journals, some published by universities.  The best of these articles are very widely circulated and their authors get to talk about their work in large district-wide conferences to thousands of their peers.

One of our team members recalled our conversation with a principal who had taken over a low-performing school and turned it around.  She told us that when she had arrived the former principal had the faculty concentrating almost entirely on the teaching of Chinese, English and mathematics to get student performance in these key subjects up, but had found little success.  This new principal said to us, "Of course they did not do well this way.  How could they do well in language and mathematics without a balanced curriculum, without a faculty that showed that they loved them, without music, art and PE?"  And our team member observed with a wry smile how different this reaction was from the way American schools, faced with poor performance in language and mathematics, had been forced to double down on drill and practice in language and mathematics, with little success.

Another team member, a policy analyst, observed how startled he was when we met with Professor Minxuan Zhang, one of the principal architects of the modern Shanghai system and the author of a report on Shanghai's teachers published by NCEE's Center on International Education Benchmarking.  Our colleague had read page after page of Shanghai policy pronouncements (in translation) and found them stilted and dry, hardly the stuff of inspiration.  But, listening to Professor Zhang describe the thinking that had inspired those statements and the intentions of their authors, he had been enthralled. 

What he and the other members of our team had been astounded by was the degree to which the principals, teachers and even the students we talked with had, when asked what they were trying to achieve and why it was important to achieve it, spoken with conviction and understanding about the same aims and the same practices that the policymakers had had in mind when they wrote the policy statements.  This whole enormous system was on pretty much the same page for the same reasons, not because they had been told to do something in particular, but because the discussions they had been involved in had led them to the same conclusions about the goals and the most effective ways to achieve them.

Another member of our team talked about his surprise when we asked principals and teachers in the middle and high schools we visited whether the students coming from the primary and middle schools were ready for their very demanding curriculum, and every respondent looked at us as though that was the dumbest question they had ever heard.  It was quite clear that this was simply not an issue.  Of course the students were ready.  Why shouldn't they be?  We asked this question in schools serving poor, migrant students and those serving students from much more advantaged backgrounds. We kept getting the same answer.  But this, of course, is a gigantic problem in American schools, to the point that the majority of high school graduates wind up three or four grade levels below the 12th grade level of literacy by the time they graduate, and therefore a long way from ready for a very undemanding college program.  We asked ourselves what we had seen in the Shanghai schools that would explain how they could be so successful on this crucial point when our schools are so unsuccessful. 

Three related facts came to the minds of our team.  One was the clarity of the system's curriculum expectations.  There is a core curriculum that accounts for about 70 percent of the available time that is required for all students. The courses are spelled out and the system approves the textbooks that will be used.  The teachers, as I pointed out above, have the time to talk and work with each other to make sure that the lesson plans they create for those courses do what they are supposed to do for their students and the students master the material, lesson, by lesson, grade by grade and subject by subject.  The teachers, organized by grade level, have the time to talk with one another about individual students who seem to be having trouble and work out a plan for correcting the problems they see before the student has a chance to fall very far behind.  So everyone keeps up.  There is little doubt that this one feature of their system accounts for no small amount of their remarkable success.

One member of our team, who in an earlier life had studied at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of our country's leading music schools and had at another point in his life studied chemistry, talked about his observations of high school lessons he had seen in these two subjects.  The music lesson he saw was, he thought, an absolutely masterful lesson in certain key music skills, crafted so that each element led ineluctably to the next in way that demonstrated both a deep understanding of music theory and practice and, at the same time, a deep understanding of how one learns music.  He learned from the teacher of the class that he had collaborated in the design of the lesson with a top musician and teacher at Shanghai's leading music conservatory, a world-class institution.  My colleague noted that the lesson managed to convey in 35 minutes material that would typically take more than twice that time. That it had clearly been honed and then honed again to remove everything that was not essential and to give the connections in the logic of the instruction an air of inevitability that seemed, as he put it, simply elegant.

He saw the same characteristics in a chemistry class, the same deep knowledge of subject matter and same care in the design of the lesson, resulting in an impressively elegant lesson that he characterized as carefully constructed choreography that resulted in near total student engagement and deep understanding.

And, finally, one member of our team, a former teacher, principal, superintendent and chief state school officer, pulled it all together.  The common thread, he said, was the way teachers were treated, in every way, as professionals.  Teachers are well paid relative to other government employees and teaching is a preferred profession in China.  Their career ladder system offers the same kind of career opportunities that highly regarded professionals in other fields can look forward to.  The career ladder leads in one direction to the principalship and in the other to master teacher and beyond.  What is fascinating is that the top of the teacher career ladder is a position called Professor-Teacher, a position higher than that of a Master Teacher.  As Professor Zhang explained it, all teachers are required to do research of the kind described above.  But, as they go up the career ladder they are expected to deepen their research skills and to lead other teachers in research teams, often with the direct support of people in the district offices.  As they progress further up the career ladder toward the top, they are expected to learn and use the kind of quantitative and analytical skills that we would recognize in our universities as qualifications for tenured professorships.  

"So," he said, "if they have the same skills as university professors and the only difference is that they are expected to teach in our schools rather than in our universities, why not call them professors?" 

And that, my colleague pointed out, revealed a very important attitude that the Shanghai system has toward its teachers.  The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission clearly views its teachers, not university researchers, as the main drivers of improvements in student performance.  That's why Shanghai teachers have so much time to work together to constantly improve every aspect of school and student performance.  That's why so much of the criteria for moving up the career ladder are based on teachers' capacity to do research, lead research and lead other teachers in applying research to the improvement of student performance. 

Everywhere we went, the teachers talked about the importance of constantly getting better, which meant improving their own skills and improving the curriculum and instruction and therefore improving student performance.  Like doctors, engineers and attorneys in the United States, they saw keeping up with the latest developments in their field and changing their practice in the light of those advancements as a core part of their responsibility.  That is why professional development and school improvement are thought of as synonymous by Shanghai officials. 

Like professionals in all high status fields, the Shanghai teachers we talked with saw mentoring young people just beginning their careers as another core part of their responsibility.  And they accepted the idea that they were not functioning autonomously in their classrooms, but accountable to their peers and colleagues for the quality of their own work and for their contribution to the common enterprise.   These are all hallmarks of a true profession.  My colleague observed that it was this professional environment for teaching that made everything else we had observed both possible and necessary. 

Every part of the system was essential to its performance, but Shanghai's enormous investment in its teachers—in their compensation, their initial education, their long apprenticeship to a master of their profession, the time they are given to learn from one another, the opportunities they are given to do research and share what they have learned with their peers and so much more—this aspect of the system is the mainspring that drives it all.  It is the professionalism, confidence, skills, drive and commitment of the teaching force that makes the whole thing work.

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