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Great teachers underpin Shanghai PISA success

Long reads
Authors: Jo Earp
Great teachers underpin Shanghai PISA success

Great teachers and a strong education system are why Shanghai has ranked number one in reading, mathematics and science in the last two rounds of international testing for 15-year-olds, according to an in-depth report from the World Bank.

‘One of the most impressive aspects of Shanghai’s education system is the way it grooms, supports, and manages teachers, who are central to any effort to raise the education quality in schools,’ lead author Xiaoyan Liang says. ‘The reason the teaching profession is regarded with a lot of respect in Shanghai is not just because teachers earn reasonable, stable salaries – it is also because of how well they teach. They are true professionals.’

How Shanghai Does It: Insights and Lessons from the Highest-Ranking Education System in the World says teachers are supported with ongoing professional development which is often collaborative in nature and focused on improving instruction, and a framework of clear learning standards, regular student assessment and well-aligned curriculum.

‘An intense discussion has been trailing the Shanghai PISA [Programme for International Student Assessment] story since 2009, ranging from initial questioning of the true representativeness of the sample, to attempting to discredit Shanghai’s results by saying that Shanghai is not China, or attributing Shanghai and East Asian achievements to merely “Confucius,” culture, or parental emphasis on education,’ the report notes.

An excellent teacher workforce

The World Bank used school surveys and benchmarking analysis and evaluation of education policies and practices to gather insights and lessons from Shanghai’s success. Attracting and developing an excellent teacher workforce is singled out as a policy highlight.

On average, teachers in the city of 23 million people spend around a third of their time teaching in class – 14 hours per week compared with the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) average of 19.3 hours per week. However, they spend less time on keeping order (8 per cent as compared with the TALIS average of 12 per cent) and the majority of their class time is spent on teaching and learning (86 per cent compared with the TALIS average of 79 per cent).

The rest of their time is spent on lesson planning, student counselling, grading homework, observing and mentoring colleagues and other professional development. ‘Professional development is an essential part of teacher responsibilities,’ the report says.

It adds teachers are expected to be active researchers who reflect on their practice in relation to student outcomes. All new teachers working in basic education (the nine years of compulsory primary and secondary education in China) have to complete 360 hours of PD in their first five years and another 540 hours when they want to apply for a senior-grade rank. ‘Additionally, much of the professional development is designed to be school-based and collaborative and to pay particular attention to instructional improvement.’

The World Bank says basic education in Shanghai has a long history of establishing professional learning communities, with regular PD practices including teaching-research groups and lesson observations. Collaborative teaching-research groups date back to the 1950s in China and offer a chance for educators to carry out their own research and share ideas to improve their practice.

The groups meet for two to three hours each week, with activities including coaching and guidance by senior mentors, new teacher induction, subject content and pedagogy research and performance evaluation by teaching colleagues in the same group. ‘The collaborative nature of teaching-research groups allows for the growth of the entire teaching community, rather than a few individuals,’ the report notes.

In the area of school leadership, Shanghai explicitly expects its principals to be strong instructional leaders. One of their key roles is in offering guidance to teachers, indeed most will end up observing somewhere between 30 and 50 classes each semester and delivering teacher feedback. Lesson observations – observing others and being observed – are a regular occurrence throughout a teacher’s career. There are even school-, district- and city-wide ‘gong kai ke’ (lesson competitions) where teachers prepare a lesson and showcase it to an audience.

The World Bank study found that teachers have a high level of content knowledge. Principals are also expected to know student learning targets and curriculum standards at the different stages of school education. ‘[They are] considered the leader of curriculum reform and development of the school-based curriculum.’ It’s not unusual for schools in Shanghai to appoint one principal specifically to focus on improving classroom instruction.

Commenting on the results of its school surveys, the World Bank says: ‘With regard to instruction, 99 percent of the principals have a good grasp of pedagogical theories including student learning behaviours, teachers’ pedagogical role, and the knowledge construction process.’

Supporting low-performing schools and disadvantaged students

Outstanding teachers from urban districts are rotated into ‘twinning’ schools in rural or semi-urban areas to help underperforming schools and disadvantaged students. A similar system of principal rotation exists: ‘In 2013, the city deployed nine skilled principals from central districts to schools in the rural districts to serve as mentors and offer management advice for two years.’ An important aspect of the system is that, rather than being ‘taken over’, lower-performing twinned schools form joint management and teaching teams with their higher-performing counterparts.

The World Bank points out that the city also has one of the most equal education systems among PISA participant countries. ‘For example, it has the highest proportion of resilient students (19.2 per cent), that is, disadvantaged students who perform among the top 25 percent of students across all participating countries and economies after controlling for socioeconomic status.’

New challenges and future reforms

However, the institution says despite its success in the international student assessments, the city has already moved beyond PISA and is now focusing on challenges such as improving the social and emotional wellbeing of students and fostering skills such as creativity and innovation.

‘It will be increasingly important for Shanghai to find a healthier balance between academic excellence and students’ social and emotional well-being. Though not explicitly discussed in this report, students in Shanghai report a high level of parental pressure and unhappiness when compared with their international peers.’

While the senior secondary and graduation exams are part of a broader system of regular formal and informal assessments that inform teaching and learning across the school years, they are big events in Shanghai that are feared by some and have been blamed for putting students under too much pressure. They've also been seen as motivation for teachers to teach to the test. The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission is in the process of revising the exams to make them more flexible and expects to roll out the changes in 2017/2018.

Shanghai is also a pilot city for China’s Comprehensive Education Reform, which includes promoting child-centred teaching and learning and the development of so-called 21st Century skills.


Liang, Xiaoyan, Huma Kidwai, and Minxuan Zhang. (2016) How Shanghai Does It: Insights and Lessons from the Highest-Ranking Education System in the World. Directions in Development. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-0790-9.

Do you take time, individually and with colleagues, to reflect on your own classroom practice?

As a school leader, how often do you observe teacher practice and give feedback to staff?

As a teacher, how does research and evidence inform your classroom practice?

Samantha 14 June 2016

It’s significant and not commented upon further than mentioning it, that Shanghai teachers spend 4% less of their class teaching time maintaining order - we in many Australian schools experience poor student respect for authority and a poor respect for education itself.

It is often not regarded as a privilege to receive an education and education is not seen as an opportunity to reach one’s potential - which, I am sure is inculcated into the average Chinese student. ... We need to change the attitude of a whole section of society towards education and what constitutes right or privilege. Education needs to be seen as a privilege not a right and one’s future and success needs to be seen as one’s own responsibility not just the responsibility of the system and/or the teacher who is hamstrung by the poor attitudes of these particular students who disrupt at worst and waste their time with poor or no application at best - and then blame the system or teacher.

Students who regard education as their ticket to success and therefore strive to find their potential will learn - those who don’t have this attitude will fail, no matter what educational resources are thrown at them. The students who I tutor display both extremes of this attitude and their personal progress, failure or success reflects their attitude, NOT intelligence, resources or time.

Matthew 15 June 2016

Whilst it is hard to ignore the results I for one am sceptical. My scepticism certainly can not explain Shanghai’s overall success and there is much merit to Jo Earp’s article. However, having been selected to work and witness first hand what is happening in Shanghai’s schools and universities I left thinking all is not as it seems.

Unlike countries like Australia, which randomly supplies sample schools’ results across all SES and communities, if one digs a little deeper you will find Shanghai supply generally their higher performing schools for comparison. The black market in test papers is rife and good teachers in good districts earn good money on the side providing students with worked examples. Now not for one moment am I suggesting any form of cheating, but I could not speak freely to teachers and lecturers in Shanghai about their work. I was always ushered to speak to selected officials which gave wonderfully scripted answers to pre-determined questions.

I do not doubt for one moment there is a lot of quality work taking place in Shanghai schools and there should be much praise heaped where it is due. Apart from the fact education is valued more highly than even in our own country by the majority of citizens could well explain a readiness and thirst for learning we tend to take for granted for so many other non schooling reasons.

Give praise where it is due, but I would much rather follow Singapore and Finland before I dive into the Shanghai pool of school education.

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