The Shanghai Secret to Perfect PISA

The leaders in Shanghai China may not have figured out how to control smog very well (see story HERE).

China Pollution

Or even how to keep intact apartment buildings from collapsing without warning.


But they have definitely figured out how to create a perfect PISA!

As has been discussed repeatedly since the release of the 2012 PISA results last Tuesday, Shanghai students do exceptionally well on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) given to 15-year-olds around the world. They received a mean score in mathematics of 613, compared with the OECD average of 494 and 481 in the U.S. That put them the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling ahead of the OECD average. While math is where they really excel, Shanghai students also lead the pack in reading and science.

Do you want to know the secret to their high scores? Actually, it’s not much of a secret because their leaders freely admit how it happens.

Here it is: If the USA wants to emulate the success of the schools in Shanghai and achieve outstanding test scores on the PISA, all we need to do is select students for our schools based on their test-taking abilities and then spend 16-18 hours a day, six days a week preparing them to take tests. We also will want to exclude those students who might do poorly on the test from our sample.

It’s really that simple.

However, I think most people with an understanding of international tests recognize that Shanghai is not representative of China. Brookings Institution education expert Tom Loveless makes that argument convincingly in an October blog entitled “PISA’s China Problem.”

Dexter Roberts also published an excellent article on this topic in Business Week in April 2013: “Chinese Education: The Truth Behind the Boasts.”

Both of these authors do an effective job of dissecting the reasons for Shanghai’s relative success on PISA, so there is no need for me do it again here.

I will include one quote from Loveless as he provides a proper word of caution relative to making comparisons to Shanghai: “Everyone should place Shanghai’s scores in proper perspective. Shanghai has an economically and culturally elite population with systems in place to make sure that students who may perform poorly are not allowed into public schools.” “No one will know how well China can perform on an international test until it participates, as a nation, under the same rules as all other nations.”

At the same time, I do believe that these international tests may have some value in showing us how educational systems are performing all over the world. We should not completely ignore the results. America can learn important lessons from other nations’ scores but this is dependent upon having all of the facts to properly interpret each of these scores. This takes time and significant psychometric analysis.

In the meantime, the media, state and national politicians along with others with an agenda need to stop discussing the scores of Shanghai as if they are the scores of China. It would be similar to our state using only the ACT scores from the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics to compare to other states. Both are clearly invalid comparisons.

The Chinese know this as well, which is why they don’t spend much time touting their students’ performance. To the contrary, many in the education ministry are keenly aware of what these scores represent…and what they do not represent.

As one Shanghai principal stated: “Developed countries like the U.S. should not be surprised by these results. They’re just one index, one measure that shows off the good points of Shanghai’s and China’s education system. But the results can’t cover up our problems…things like the continuing reliance on rote learning (and) the lack of analysis or critical thinking. (Our) system is in dire need of reform. Why don’t Chinese students dare to think? Because we insist on telling them everything. We’re not getting our kids to go and find things out for themselves.”

I contend that we need to be having a different conversation relative to our country’s performance on international tests. As we know, American students have never done well on these international comparisons, going all the way back to the 1960’s. Yet we continue to lead the world in our gross domestic product (GDP), with 20% of the world’s share. GDP is the market value of all final goods and services from a nation in a given year.

According to the International Monetary Fund (2012), our nation’s GDP is just behind that of the entire European Union and greater than the GDP of China, Japan, and India combined!

Not exactly rationale for yelling “the sky is falling,” even though many do exactly that.

Let’s go back and look at what is truly happening in China today.

There is an interesting paradox unfolding in China. At the same time that they lead the world in international testing, business are having a difficult time finding qualified employees within China to fill them.

A McKinsey study found that fewer than ten percent of Chinese graduates are considered suitable to work at multinational companies based in China. A separate study by McKinsey Quarterly found that 44 percent of the executives in Chinese companies reported that insufficient talent was the biggest barrier to their global ambitions.

The explanation: the Chinese test-oriented educational environment.

In particular, the nation’s reliance on student scores on the gaokao, or the college entrance exam. In China, this is the only test that really matters since it determines whether students can attend college and what kind of colleges they can attend. Because of its life-determining nature, the gaokao has become the tail that wags the entire educational system.

Everyone works together to ensure that students earn the best scores possible. From a very young age, children are relieved of any burden (to include play) and asked to study for 12-16 hours a day, six days a week, 220 days a year. Those who become good at taking tests and do well on the gaokao go to college to obtain even more book knowledge. Those who do not do well on tests are not given the opportunity to attend college, unless they have a lot of money of course.

The results of China’s long-time emphasis on testing to sort and segregate students has resulted in an abundance of very knowledgeable yet untalented college graduates. According to the McKinsey business studies, a disproportionate number of Chinese college graduates lack critical thinking, problem-solving skills, creativity, and entrepreneurial attitudes.

It has also created young adults that have lost their motivation to learn.

How about this letter from a helpless feeling mother that was published by the Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-controlled media organization:

Since my daughter began 7th grade (first year of middle school), she has had extra evening classes. At that time, the class ends at 6:50 pm and I accepted it. But ever since she entered 9th grade, the evening class has lengthened to 8:40 pm. For the graduating class, the students have to take classes from 7:30 am to 8:00 pm on Saturdays. There are also five weeks of classes during the winter and summer school vacation. All day long, the students don’t have any self-study time, or physical education classes. This kind of practice has seriously damaged students’ health. They have completely lost motivation and interest in studying. My child’s health gets worse day by day. So is her mental spirit. She has begun to lose her spirit.This is not the end. After coming home after 10 pm, she has to spend at least one hour on her homework. She has to get up at 5am. She is still a child. May I ask how many adults can endure this kind of work?

A student who posted a comment on this same story said this: “I am exhausted and have become stupid, even before I graduate from middle school,” says one student. “You adults work from 9 to 5, but we have to work 18 hours a day.”

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker who has done extensive research on the Chinese and American education systems. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. In his 2009 book, Catching Up or Leading the Way, he discusses the differences between the two systems.

In particular, he spends considerable time explaining the misguided direction of current American educational reforms.

As Zhao describes in detail, a very odd scenario is unfolding in front of our eyes. At the same time that America moves towards the Chinese model of education (excessive use of testing to sort and track students while ranking teachers and schools), the Chinese are trying to reform their system to be more like the one we are moving away from—one focused on developing the whole child by fostering creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

In an extremely revealing June 2012 blog, Zhao dissects the relationship between students’ perceived levels of creativity and entrepreneurship and scores on international tests. (see chart below).

PISA chart

His research reveals that countries with higher PISA scores have fewer people who are confident in their entrepreneurial capabilities. Out of the innovation-driven economies, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are among the best PISA performers but their scores on the measure of perceived capabilities or confidence in their ability to start a new business are the lowest.

In another post, Zhao shares how the Chinese Ministry of Education is considering major reforms to REDUCE the importance of testing in education. According to this document, “These problems [of evaluation] severely hamper student development as a whole person, stunt their healthy growth, and limit opportunities to cultivate social responsibilities, creative spirit, and practical abilities in students.” Wow!

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear that from someone in charge of education in our state and country?

Instead, our leaders are wasting time developing the “next generation of assessments aligned to rigorous standards,” creating inaccurate value-added models to rank teachers and schools based on student test scores, and creating policies that punish students for failing tests.

There is little doubt that if we really put our full effort to it, our country can develop a new generation of children who are great test takers.

And we can find ourselves in the same situation as China, with lots of highly knowledgeable young adults who lack the thinking skills and entrepreneurial abilities to fill and/or create the jobs of the 21st century.

It’s not about creating the perfect PISA. The Chinese know this. It is too bad our leaders are not paying attention.

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2 thoughts on “The Shanghai Secret to Perfect PISA

  1. It would be that simple, but you forgot one more environmental fact: the kids selected for our Selective PISA Testing Group must be educated in a smog/soot/carcinogen filled class environment. We have to duplicate the setting to a T.

    • Valid point, I wonder if they issue breathing apparatus during testing, maybe as a testing accommodation. I recall a picture of Chinese students hooked up to IVs of amino acids in preparation for the gaokao, so nothing is out of the imagination.

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