Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Shanghai Surprise -- something that people who followed the PISA story closely were already talking about

In the wake of the release of the PISA scores, one of the big topics was Tom Loveless's Brookings research which seemed to show that not only was Shanghai unrepresentative of China but the city's PISA scores weren't actually representative of the city.
Theoretically, at least, the ban against Shanghai’s migrant children attending primary and middle schools (up to age 14) was lifted in 2008.  For high schools (and the potential PISA population), Shanghai adopted a point system allowing some migrant children with highly educated parents or other high status characteristics to attend.  That system went into effect July 1, 2013 so it is too early to gauge the impact of this very modest reform.  And it obviously would have had no effect on Shanghai’s school population for PISA 2012.

The barriers to migrants attending Shanghai’s high schools remain almost insurmountable.   High schools in Shanghai charge fees. Sometimes the fees are legal, but often in China, they are no more than bribes, as the Washington Post has reported.  Students must take the national exam for college (gaokao) in the province that issued their hukou.  An annual mass exodus of adolescents from city to countryside takes place, back to impoverished rural schools.  At least there, migrant kids might have a shot at college admission.  This phenomenon is unheard of anywhere else in the world; it’s as if a sorcerer snaps his fingers, and millions of urban teens suddenly disappear.
The story was widely covered. The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss did an excellent summary. Joshua Keating also had a good write-up at Slate. And not surprisingly, Diane Ravitch has been all over it.

All of these pieces came out before December 17, 2013, which was when the New York Times Editorial Board published this:
Shanghai: Fighting Elitism
China’s educational system was largely destroyed during Mao Zedong’s “cultural revolution,” which devalued intellectual pursuits and demonized academics. Since shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the country has been rebuilding its education system at lightning speed, led by Shanghai, the nation’s largest and most internationalized city. Shanghai, of course, has powerful tools at its disposal, including the might of the authoritarian state and the nation’s centuries-old reverence for scholarship and education. It has had little difficulty advancing a potent succession of reforms that allowed it to achieve universal enrollment rapidly. The real proof is that its students were first in the world in math, science and literacy on last year’s international exams.

One of its strengths is that the city has mainly moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were given to favored schools, and toward a more egalitarian, neighborhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof. The city has focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the O.E.C.D, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process. Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality. Some poor schools were closed, reorganized, or merged with higher-level schools. Money was transferred to poor, rural schools to construct new buildings or update old ones. Teachers were transferred from cities to rural areas and vice versa. Stronger urban schools were paired with rural schools with the aim of improving teaching methods. And under a more recent strategy, strong schools took over the administration of weak ones. The Chinese are betting that the ethos, management style and teaching used in the strong schools will be transferable.
If you're curious, you can click here to see Tom Loveless's head exploding.on Twitter.

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