This blog has previously commented on the dramatic rise of Asia and China’s education system. Some people thought this was exaggerated for reasons well rebutted in a recent article in the Financial Times:
“There are two stereotypes about schooling in east Asia: the students work extremely hard, and the learning is by rote. In fact, things are more complicated, as the OECD’s latest global schools survey has shown.
“Shanghai came top in the Pisa [Programme for International Student Assessment] survey, with three other east Asian territories in the first five. But not all east Asian countries did well, says the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, adding that it’s innovative thought that is assessed. Shanghai schools aren’t turning children into walking textbooks: they are channelling their ability and enthusiasm into exceptional results. How?...
“The Pisa survey tests 15-year olds, with a rotating focus on maths, reading and science. The emphasis is on broad learning: literacy tests involve reasoning, for example. In the three previous editions - 2000, 2003 and 2006 - Finland came top. But this year, with the focus on reading, Finland was displaced by Shanghai, with South Korea second, Hong Kong fourth and Singapore fifth…
“So why did Shanghai do so well? The OECD points to Chinese school reforms: it was impressed by the initiative shown by teachers, who are now better paid, better trained and keen to mould their own curricula. Poor teachers are speedily replaced. China has also expanded school access, and moved away from learning by rote.
“The last point is key: Russia performs well in rote-based assessments, but not in Pisa, says Schleicher, head of the indicators and analysis division at the OECD’s directorate for education. China does well in both rote-based and broader assessments.
“If schools did well just because of hard work, then countries with similar cultures should see similar results. But… Shanghai beats Taiwan, and Hong Kong beats Macau...
“Is Shanghai the exception or the rule in Chinese school standards? In some countries, major cities underperform the national average, but that seems less likely in China, given the coast-interior disparities. However, the OECD did look at some rural areas, and found they matched Shanghai’s quality... What the Pisa results suggest is that, just like Chinese companies, Chinese schoolchildren won’t be pushed to the back of the class.”
The OECD noted that even in rural China results approached average levels for the OECD countries:"Citing further, as-yet unpublished OECD research, Mr Schleicher said: “We have actually done Pisa in 12 of the provinces in China. Even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average."
The finding that Shanghai’s secondary school education is now ranked number one in the world by the OECD’s survey, which is regarded as the most comprehensive international comparison, is of course striking. But a second indicative development, at the highest level of the academic world, is that it has been announced that Shanghai’s Jiao Tong University has attracted as full time professor the winner of the Nobel prize for medicine, and discoverer of HIV, Luc Montagnier.
Taking first some more detail on the OECD study, the PISA report is published every three years. It is based on a study of half a million school students, at age 15, in more than seventy economies. The report found that Shanghai came ahead of the lead countries, South Korea and Finland, and was placed first in each of the categories of reading, maths and science - with skill in complex mathematics found to be more than eight times the OECD average: ‘The province of Shanghai, China, took part for the first time and scored higher in reading than any country. It also topped the table in maths and science. More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%.’
The OECD found that strength of Asian countries, including Shanghai’s, was not based on a policy concentrating resources exclusively on “elite education” but its foundation was targeting raising broad educational achievements - which then also helped raised the level of top ranked institutions. OECD education expert Eric Charbonnier notes Asia’s success was a result of educational values that favour equality as well as quality and that: "In Shanghai, a city of 20 million, they followed policies to fight against social inequality, to target the schools that were in most difficulty and send them the best performing heads and most experienced teachers."
Education statistics for Shanghai are indeed now extremely striking. For a developing country, China’s 99.4% enrolment in primary education is already, as the OECD puts it, “the envy of many countries” while junior secondary school participation rates in China are now 99%. But in Shanghai not only has senior secondary school enrolment attained 98% but admissions into higher education have achieved 80% of the relevant age group. That this growth reflects quality, not just quantity, is confirmed clearly by the OECD’s ranking of Shanghai’s secondary education as world number one.
The implications of this educational effort for future economic growth are evident. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria notes: “Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth… While national income and educational achievement are still related, PISA shows that two countries with similar levels of prosperity can produce very different results. This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly-educated countries is now out of date.”
Turning from secondary education to the top of the academic ladder, Shanghai’s Jiao Tong university has announced that Luc Montagnier, Nobel Prize winner in medicine for the discovery of HIV, has accepted a full time professorship. Montagnier stated that a key attraction for him was that the University had agreed to create a research centre with 20-30 staff. Shanghai Jiao Tong University is rated as one of China’s top universities with its original foundations in science and engineering.
Evidently Shanghai’s educational achievements are in the lead of, and well ahead of, China as a whole – the majority of China’s population still lives in the countryside. No one in China would expect Shanghai’s achievement as being ranked number one in the world in secondary education to be translated rapidly into an equivalent success at overall university level – building up average university level research and education will take even greater resources than primary and secondary education. Jiao Tong and Fudan, Shanghai’s top universities, are well ahead of the average college level yet achieved in China. But the extraordinary achievement of Shanghai in being ranked number one in the world in secondary education shows the dynamic which is underway.
Declaration of Interest
As the author is a visiting professor in Shanghai he needs to make a declaration of interest regarding the above article. But not evidently, in the sense that it distorts the data – the conclusions of the OECD’s study clearly was not influenced by the present author! But it strongly confirms my personal observations formed through teaching in Jiao Tong University. The level of interaction of students in and out of class, the ability of the research students, and the work ethic brought in from the rest of the education system is extraordinary – and as I know Oxford University first hand as a student I am aware what a top class university is like. It is the power and progress of China’s education system, not its cheap labour, that is now sustaining it on the human side as the world's most dynamic economy.
How the Financial Times assessed the OECD report