Last week I introduced a discussion about Finnish schools in this column. My reason for doing so was that Finland was once an “also ran” in international test rankings but has in recent years soared to the top. I raised the question as to why we are not studying their system to see if we can learn from them.
This week I want to talk about China, another country that topped the world charts in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams. Once again let me make my intention clear. I am not arguing either for or against whether the United States should be concerned about these international test scores. My point is that IF we are going to measure our schools against international standards, it seems logical to me that we would be interested in knowing how those countries which make the top of the list are doing so. If we are not concerned about the international scores, let’s stop talking about them and comparing our students against them.
Let me also make it clear that China as a country still has a long way to go and many schools that need fixing. However, there may be things we can learn from their high performing schools.
Most of the information I am using comes from a column by Thomas Friedman who has travelled in China and visited some of the highest and lowest performing schools. His purpose was to uncover how it is that Shanghai’s public secondary schools have been able to top the world charts in the 2009 PISA exams that measure the ability of 15 year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they have learned in math, science and reading.
As we learned about Finland, the secret to their success is no secret. Freidman says their secret is simply its ability to execute fundamentals such as a 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.
Teachers in one school he visited spend 70 percent of each week teaching and 30 percent developing teaching skills and lesson planning. It is also important to note that 40 percent of the students in this school are children of poorly educated migrant workers. Andreas Schleicher, who runs the PISA exams, attributes their success 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 says the system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them. It also enables them to get the best teachers in front of the most difficult classrooms.
I will continue to research this subject and share what I learn. But I leave you with this thought. If schools in Finland and China are able to achieve such good results using these models, should we in the U.S. be asking whether this might be superior to a model that advocates closing schools and firing teachers and/or allowing private companies to take over the education of our children?
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on Oct. 23, 2013, on page A29 of the New York Times with the headline: The Shanghai Secret.
Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.