Why does Shanghai top the PISA tables?

Janet Downs's picture
Shanghai isn’t China – it is one booming city in a vast country. Yet Shanghai’s poll position in PISA* is often used to maintain that China’s entire education system is far superior to other countries’. The Government says we must beat China in the “global race” to the top but, as this report makes clear, this misses the point.

Shanghai wasn’t after gold medals when it reformed its school system – it wanted to raise the standard of education pupils** received. And this education wasn’t just confined to facts or the three PISA subjects of reading, maths and science. Shanghai wanted to move away from memorization to creativity and problem-solving.

It’s important to realize that schooling isn’t separate from the culture in which it operates, the report says. And it would be wrong to scour its analysis for magic bullets. A country’s education system and its culture cannot be separated. Yet analysts have a tendency to cherry pick certain characteristics and hope transplanting these into another country will reproduce Shanghai’s high results.

So, looking at the whole system, what did the report reveal?

1The culture supports education. This is not, however, the stereotypical “Tiger” parenting – it is an expectation that children will work diligently.

2There is “profound respect for teachers”.

3Teachers are graduates and trained in an apprenticeship system. This aspect has been appropriated by Education Secretary Michael Gove to justify moving away from university-based teacher training. However, he missed the second important part of this training: it is continuous throughout a teachers’ career. Shanghai teachers only spend half of their time in school in the classroom – the rest of the time is spent on strategies to improve teacher performance. The trade-off is larger class size.

4 Teachers are central in the process of improvement. They are trained in research methods: it is teachers, not administrators (or politicians, or the media), who lead curriculum development and decide teaching methodology.

5There is defined career progression leading to Master Teacher status. Teachers who wish to reach to top must spend some time in a disadvantaged school. Senior teachers are expected to undertake “action research projects”: investigating a particular topic and reporting back.

6Teachers are subject specialists not generalists even at elementary level.

7There is an emphasis on learning. Teaching is moving towards active engagement. This does not necessarily mean physical activity but entails mental activity. The pupil is effectively engaged in learning.

8The system studies educational theory from across the world. Again, compare this with Gove’s position: he derides educational experts as members of the Blob; university professors who oppose him are attacked as “Marxists”.

9Shanghai abolished end of primary school exams. Schools could then “focus on deeper learning rather than teaching to the exams.” But in England there’s an excessive focus on tests. Gove even wants 13 year-olds to take Common Entrance (because that’s what some private schools do).

10Schools are expected to collaborate particularly with high-performing schools working with (not taking over) weaker ones. Research teachers (see above) are expected to share results between schools and within districts.

11There is a common, localized curriculum which takes up between 60- 70% of the time. The rest is the “expanded curriculum” directed towards pupils’ strengths and a “research” component which expects pupils to undertake some kind of extended project. The curriculum is currently being refined to encourage more creativity and innovation.

12Equity is encouraged by diverting more funding to disadvantaged schools.

13There is a quota for pupils with good marks from low-performing schools to enter high-performing upper secondary schools, colleges and universities.

Shanghai didn’t take part in PISA to make a “statement” about where it stood globally, the report said. It took part so it could learn lessons about how to improve further. Compare this with Gove’s idea that local authorities, even schools, “benchmark” their performance against PISA.

But this narrow focus on results misses the point – if education means anything at all it means being engaged in deep learning encouraged by teachers who take part in continuous professional development designed to constantly improve their performance.

* Programme for International Student Assessment tests set every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. They test reading, maths and science. In the last round of PISA tests, 65 countries took part.

**Not all children resident in Shanghai are educated there. This is changing but it’s important to remember that few children of migrant workers were included in PISA tests.

Note: this is a complementary piece to Questioning Shanghai’s PISA results.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


John Mountford's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 08:18

Thanks for this thorough and informative post, Janet. It should be copied to every news editor across the media and sent to all politicians as a point of reference in the debate over education in our country. Well done.

James Harvey's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 19:49

Well, that's a lengthy post, but it could have been shortened to the last footnote, hidden and so grudgingly acknowledged: " **Not all children resident in Shanghai are educated there. This is changing but it’s important to remember that few children of migrant workers were included in PISA tests." That's the essential point of the complementary piece "Questioning Shanghai's PISA Results."

The rest of this report, written by die hard-fans of PISA, is just fluff. I hope it's accurate, but it's all distinctly secondary. If Western schools were permitted to exclude all but the most talented poor students and those with disabilities, they would likely report remarkable PISA scores also.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/02/2014 - 09:49

James: "so grudgingly acknowledged". It was acknowledged which is more that Gove et al do when they compare England unfavourably with Shanghai. Rather than being "soooooo grudging", my footnote was an honest attempt to be balanced.

Nevertheless, you make a valid point about excluding certain pupils from the PISA tests. That's why PISA makes an effort to ensure the sample of pupils is representative. They may or may not be successful. PISA's methodology has been criticised as I make clear here:


However, I reject your description of the NCEE report as "fluff". It contained some interesting ideas about teacher development, the importance of the culture in which schools operate, etc.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 11/02/2014 - 12:02

For me the most interesting aspect of the Shanghai approach is the direction of travel.

Your points 7 - 11 show a clear movement in the exact opposite direction to that which Gove is forcing onto the English system.

Andy V's picture
Wed, 26/02/2014 - 18:31

A surprising but rather welcome piece of openness from the BBC that helps counterpoint the government spin doctors:


Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.