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The Shanghai Secret

Ohanian Comment: How fitting is it that Thomas Friedman, the dark prophet of unregulated marketplaces, hooks up with Wendy Kopp, chief prophetess of regulation-free teacherhood, as travel partner? Usually Friedman offers kernels of wisdom from a cabdriver or vendor. Here he says he's getting his wisdom from "a Shanghai elementary school."

I admit that my dislike of Friedman is so intense I can't applaud anything he says--even potentially positive things such as lauding a school schedule making time in a teacher's day for her to think and collaborate with her peers. But note how he overlays this with the sly comment that such an action helps even mediocre people [teachers] do a good job.

I've posted a few comments from readers who weighed in at the New York Times site. For an overview of Friedman, I recommend Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work; it provides a dissection of Friedman's corpus on topics other than education. Also see Why Tom Friedman Is the Ayn Rand of Our Times for a short essay in which the writer points out that with 15 or 20 million Americans seeking full-time employment, Thomas Friedman, who decress that average is over, labels their plight as a branding problem.

Friedman is all about branding.

Interesting that he doesn't reveal what Kopp had to say about all this.

Reader Comment: I've taught English at a primary school in China for 2 years, and this article is quite generous in its praise for the Chinese educational system. Class sizes are huge, usually 35 students in a primary class and students learn by rote memorization. They can recite entire paragraphs from their English book, but can't have a simple conversation after years of study.

You've never seen teachers "teach for the test" more so than in China. Even 1st and 2nd graders are made to cram for tests. This article fails to mention that many Chinese students attend extra lessons during the week and on weekends. Children in China have no social lives. Their weeknights and weekends are filled with extra English, math, Chinese, calligraphy, ping pong, and piano classes, not to mention hours upon hours of homework, to the point where it is of little benefit.

Where I taught, 2 hours outside Shanghai, unmarried teachers live in a dorm across from the school. The school has enormous control over both the students and the teachers lives. In middle school, students have class from 7am to 8pm and that is extended when they reach high school, not to mention an 'optional' Sunday from 1:30-8pm. Those being the teachers hours too.

I absolutely acknowledge that China is doing some things right, like peer evaluations. However, the main reason children in China succeed is because of parental and cultural expectations and despite most of what I've mentioned here. And by succeed, I mean do well on exams.

Reader Comment: Mr. Friedman --While you have hit upon a number of factors common to outstanding school systems, you seem unaware of the fact that China has a strong vocational training system that removes roughly half of kids from the PISA tests before high school. You also fail to note that Shanghai is comparatively affluent in China; "low income" there is not the same as low income elsewhere. When you control for income and the fact they are creaming the top half of students in international comparisons, Shanghai's performance doesn't look miraculous at all.

I'm afraid you're buying into the hype, which is used to fuel the U.S.'s testing and charter school mania, which in turn serves powerful financial and publishing interests. I would love to see you do a story on this . . . the REAL story.

That said, you seem to point to both education systems and family engagement. Both are important, and families need to do more. But when education "innovators" take Detroit to 60 students/class, and little teacher training time, it's clear they have given up.

And by the way, you're with Teach for America and praising teacher training? You do realize they are undermining trained teachers and unions with short-term, untrained amateurs, right? Again, I would love to see you do a story on that real story as well.

Reader Comment: Journalists need to sit in at least 100 classrooms before they preach about how education in this country can be improved. They should remain for an entire day, observe how children look when they enter, note how many had breakfast, and review their homework. Access to attendance records and incidents of inappropriate behavior will give insight into the learning environment. Interviewing parents and a long hard look at the neighborhood will reveal the variables which teachers cannot control. I suggest Mr. Friedman and Mr. Keller attempt to teach some lessons. Perhaps they will learn something and report back to us.

by Thomas L. Friedman

SHANGHAI -- Whenever I visit China, I am struck by the sharply divergent predictions of its future one hears. Lately, a number of global investors have been "shorting" China, betting that someday soon its powerful economic engine will sputter, as the real estate boom here turns to a bust. Frankly, if I were shorting China today, it would not be because of the real estate bubble, but because of the pollution bubble that is increasingly enveloping some of its biggest cities. Optimists take another view: that, buckle in, China is just getting started, and that what weâre now about to see is the payoff from Chinaâs 30 years of investment in infrastructure and education. I'm not a gambler, so I'll just watch this from the sidelines. But if youâre looking for evidence as to why the optimistic bet isn't totally crazy, you might want to visit a Shanghai elementary school.

I've traveled here with Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and the leaders of the Teach for All programs modeled on Teach for America that are operating in 32 countries. We're visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret -- how is it that Shanghaiâs public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they've learned in math, science and reading.

After visiting Shanghai's Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students -- grades one through five -- and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:

There is no secret.

When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children's learning, an insistence by the school's leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.

Shanghai's secret is simply its ability to execute more of these fundamentals in more of its schools more of the time. Take teacher development. Shen Jun, Qiangwei's principal, who has overseen its transformation in a decade from a low-performing to a high-performing school -- even though 40 percent of her students are children of poorly educated migrant workers -- says her teachers spend about 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. That is far higher than in a typical American school.

Teng Jiao, 26, an English teacher here, said school begins at 8:35 a.m. and runs to 4:30 p.m., during which he typically teaches three 35-minute lessons. I sat in on one third-grade English class. The English lesson was meticulously planned, with no time wasted. The rest of his day, he said, is spent on lesson planning, training online or with his team, having other teachers watch his class and tell him how to improve and observing the classrooms of master teachers.

"You see so many teaching techniques that you can apply to your own classroom," he remarks. Education experts will tell you that of all the things that go into improving a school, nothing -- not class size, not technology, not length of the school day -- pays off more than giving teachers the time for peer review and constructive feedback, exposure to the best teaching and time to deepen their knowledge of what theyâre teaching.

Teng said his job also includes "parent training." Parents come to the school three to five times a semester to develop computer skills so they can better help their kids with homework and follow lessons online. Christina Bao, 29, who also teaches English, said she tries to chat either by phone or online with the parents of each student two or three times a week to keep them abreast of their child's progress. "I will talk to them about what the students are doing at school." She then alluded matter-of-factly to a big cultural difference here, "I tell them not to beat them if they are not doing well."

In 2003, Shanghai had a very "average" school system, said Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams. "A decade later, it's leading the world and has dramatically decreased variability between schools.â He, too, attributes this to the fact that, while in America a majority of a teacher's time in school is spent teaching, in China's best schools, a big chunk is spent learning from peers and personal development. As a result, he said, in places like Shanghai, "the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them," while also, "getting the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms."

China still has many mediocre schools that need fixing. But the good news is that in just doing the things that American and Chinese educators know work -- but doing them systematically and relentlessly -- Shanghai has in a decade lifted some of its schools to the global heights in reading, science and math skills. Oh, and Shen Jun, the principal, wanted me to know: "This is just the start."

— Thomas L. Friedman with comment
New York Times





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