Why China excels

Shanghai;s 15-year-old students are way better than the rest of the world in reading, science and, especially math, notes Education Gadfly’s Amber M. Winkler, looking at the latest PISA results. “In math, they scored nearly a full standard deviation above the OECD average.” And it’s not just rote learning: PISA asks students to apply knowledge to real-world problems.

As an authoritarian regime, China “can force educational change in ways that are unthinkable in democracies,” Winkler writes. Still,  “despite our vastly different governments and cultures, there may yet be a few lessons that America can learn from China.”

(Shanghai) unabashedly closed or merged its lowest-performing schools with its highest-performing ones (of which there are apparently enough). It also transferred—involuntarily, mind you—a number of outstanding urban school teachers and principals to low-performing rural schools and a number of rural staff to high-performing urban sites in order to learn the ropes. Under “commissioned administration,” they can assign a good public school to take over a bad one.

The Chinese create consortia of strong and weak, old and new, and public and private schools with one exceptionally strong school at the core, which is charged with sharing best practices, Winkler writes.

Virtually all teachers are subject-matter experts, not generalists; effective classroom practitioners gain a higher “professional status;” and China has common curriculum standards. It also has a rigorous framework for teaching that includes small groups of instructors engaged in lesson preparation and teaching demonstrations. And in a policy alien to Americans, municipalities in China funnel more money and better teachers to “key schools” which serve high-performing students.

The Chinese rank schools and publish the ratings.

Of course, Chinese schools benefit from the reverence for education, which started with Confucius, Winkler writes. The culture includes a belief that academic success is a matter of effort, under the student’s control, rather than the result of inborn talent.

Unrelenting practice is the secret to the Chinese education system, writes Yuan Tian, a master’s student in philanthropic studies at Indiana University, in a letter to Gadfly.

As a student in China, I was told since my first day of elementary school to focus on my studies, to achieve high scores on all tests, and to go to a respected university. Similarly, teachers are instructed to cover only the content needed to guarantee their students obtain scores worthy of university admittance. The reason is simple: A solid university education means a good job in the future . . .

My participation in the Chinese educational system came with a price — I paid for my acceptance into a good college with twelve years without free choice or the ability to develop personal interests.

She spent four to five hours a day on homework. China’s obsession with tests comes “at the expense of producing well-rounded, thoughtful, independent-minded people,” she writes.

About Joanne


  1. Anyone interested in this topic should read Math Helping teacher Bill Jackson’s excellent post featured on The Daily Riff earlier this week titled “Why Other Countries Do Better in Math” found at http://bit.ly/erlT5r which outlines specifics in Japan and Singapore, based upon 27 years teaching here in the US and extensive travel and learning through these countries.

    Another related post is The Chinese Curse found at http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/high-scores-but-low-ability-the-chinese-curse-34.php

  2. Daniela Fairchild says:


    Great piece! Glad you’re following the ‘fly. A quick fix though–the Chinese student Yuan Tian who wrote the letter to the Gadfly is female. Just FYI.

    Happy holidays,

  3. This remains dumb, and not worth reporting on.

    How does that one province compare to the highest performing provinces and states of other nations? How does it compare to CT or MA here, for example?

    Not getting it yet? It’s like saying that seedless grapes taste better than pomegranates and watermelon, but you’re averaging in the taste of the pomegranate’s pith and rind with the taste of the seeds and the taste of the seeds and rind of the watermelon in with the taste of the flesh, while ignoring the taste of the grape vines. And then, you claim that this tells us that the best fruit has no rind (just skin) and should be of a below average size (but not any any smaller).

    It’s dumb. It’s been dumb all along.

    If we want to compare entire countries and look for pattersn that way, fine. But otherwise…?

  4. Shanghai students score much higher than students in Massachusetts, our highest performing state.

  5. It’s the lack of competition and a student’s property right to education – which means the right to blow it off – which is the key. Clearly, when people can have their educated supported for 13 years even though they don’t care and don’t try, and when those same people are encouraged to go to college, serious problems will arise. Clearly, in China – a nation of one-child families – access to higher education is highly esteemed and thus infinitely more valued.

  6. What is never reported when comparing U.S. to China is the fact that the Chinese don’t try and “reach all students”. If they are screwing around and not doing well, they are kicked out of school. Period end of sentence. There is no “how will this affect his feelings?”

    Forgot to add that teachers are allowed to hit students when they aren’t paying attention either.

    So you are taking the best that China has to offer with everyone in the U.S., which includes special ed and kids that don’t give a damn. Hardly comparable.

  7. I’ve observed the teaching that goes on in our weekend Chinese school and my impressions are these:

    1. The standards are aggressively high.
    2. The teachers do a lot of large group, direct instruction.
    3. The teachers are well prepared, serious, and work very, very hard.
    4. All students are expected to give 100%.
    5. Poor performance is a direct reflection on the parents.

    In American schools, standards are kept low enough so our success rates are high.

    Teachers spend a lot less time on direct instruction. We give a lot more hand-outs and spend time monitoring seat work.

    Teachers are casual. Many work hard, but not as hard as the Chinese teachers I’ve seen.

    In better classes, students are expected to try not to interfere with others who are there wanting to learn. Wanting to learn is a choice, not an expectation. Showing up and not being overly disruptive are the only real expectations.

    Very few parents blame themselves when they get bad reports about their children. Many blame the teachers which results in fewer calls home.

    Do these differences have anything to do with different academic results?

    Could be.

  8. Dr. Alfonz Lengyel says:

    What should be done in US Education to lift it to the level of our political and Economic Competitors?

    Dr. Alfonz Lengyel RPA.
    Founder of the Sino-American Field School of Archaeology

    Since World War II, every US President including President Barack Hussein Obama during his presidential campaign was advocating changes in education. The candidates for Federal, and State and local elections are making the same promises. Some of them, in contradiction with themselves during the campaign are telling, that, “ we have the finest education in the world”. If it is true, why in the same time they are offering some sort of reform for better education?

    In fact our education from Elementary School through BA and BS degrees of our Universities (Colleges) are not on the level of our political and economic competitors.
    Our politicians, as well as our educators are often talking about budget, but not about the needed curricular reform. We should keep in mind, that the money alone without curricular reform is just wasted, and does not make education.

    In preparing a meaningful educational reform we should consider that the US Federal Government has no jurisdiction over education, because this function was delegated to the States and Territories. Therefore it is unnecessary to maintain a huge US Department of the Education. In addition to give grants for schools, universities and individual scholars, this Department issuing tests for students, or measure the level of the schools, mostly with questions, which are not part of the curriculum in every school. Therefore, most of the teachers are concentrating on preparing students for the Federal test, instead of gave the basic foundation for a well-educated workers’ force. Further more, why in addition to the already existing several Federal grant-giving agencies, was needed to establish for grant giving purposes the US Department of the Education?

    It is an important Constitutional requirement to keep the Education in the hands of the States, and the US Territorial Governments. However, these authorities in turn further delegated down to counties, cities and other kind of communities. This created our present total educational chaos. At the time when the students are applying for university study, the advisors having hard time to find out which credits they can accept in order to fulfill the university (college) entrance requirement.

    I participated on the meeting of the Regan White House proposed National Forum on Excellence in Education, which unfortunately not produced anything else, than a book of “Nation At Risk” in which the motto was, if a neighboring country did what we did with our education, it could be a cause of war.

    In that meeting, President Reagan sarcastically told that, if for our High Tech Army, our educators were not able to produce soon eight million students who would be able to understand what they are reading, he have no other choice, than import them from Japan. Since then, the reading capabilities of our students change very little. Therefore, our military had to spend billions of dollars for remedial studies of the recruits, to make them able understand the 8 grade’s level written manuals.

    People usually uniformly telling that “ we in the US are educating everybody.” In fact, foreign students even from developing countries of Africa or Asia are able to obtain two years of advance in American Colleges and Universities. They already studied in their high schools those subjects by spreading out for many years, which the American colleges (universities) are offering only during the first two years for “General Education” only in hurry by one semester 101 survey” courses.

    In those countries, except for mentally handicapped the education is mandatory up to the age of 18. In completing high school the students reaching already the academic level what the American students barely able to achieve only after who are completing the first two years of universities (colleges) in the age of 20
    A great number of American students after receiving the high school diploma, not going to study to the extremely expensive universities (colleges) rather working, or enrolling in different trade schools. Some already dropping out earlier. In fact a small percentage of young people among high school graduates are enrolling for undergraduate colleges and universities, and a great number of them dropping out. If no American student reaching the academic level in age of 18, what the students around the world achieving in high schools, who educating everybody? The US which making high school level educations in the first two years in the universities or colleges, or the other countries who are making the mass education only in high schools? Therefore, the so-called general educational requirement should be shifted back to High School, which is the place for “mass education”. Let university students from the freshman year to study their major subject, as every foreign university doing.

    It is not a solution to FEDERALIZE EDUCATION, however, the US Government should call together the Governors of all States and Territories for an Education Summit and set a minimum curricular requirement for elementary and high schools. Let the universities start to teach the major subjects from the freshman year. The States and its communities should be free to add to the minimum federal curriculum, their state, county, city and other local particular requirements.

    The suggested reform also should include the reorganization the structure of educational institutions. None academic subject should be moved out from universities and university level Colleges to specialized institution. In addition to it, in all schools and universities/colleges, should reestablish the teaching and study moral, as well as discipline.


    In education the Federal, State and local educators should think about basic mass education nationally not only their own local needs. They should understand that Education is PART OF OUR NATIONAL DEFENSE. The “High Tech Armed Forces” also request highly educated High School graduates. The freedom of movement within States also requires this important educational philosophy. I we able to make our one of the world’s best Master and PhD Program, why our general education in elementary, middle and high schools as well as the first two years of our Universities are not even on the level of our political and economic competitors. We should keep in mind, that in light of world competition; the present chaotic curricular requirement is a crime against our youth.

  9. john marienthal says:

    As a teacher who spent six years teaching in China in Shanghai at both Chinese junior and senior middle schools and at private international schools, i would like to share some observations. There is an entrance exam for senior middle school, 10th grade, you do not do well you are parceled off to vocational high school. The vocational high school program is sub-par– my Chinese step-son attended such a program. About 65 to 70% of junior middle school students get to the better schools, the other 30-35% go to vocational schools. I was told Shanghai could not physically accommodate sending every student to senior high school.
    My school district had 52 junior middle schools with varied levels of student proficiency. (My district is one of 26 districts in Shanghai) The school I worked in specialized in English and cherry picked its students. If you made a large cash donation, you could also get into the school. My third year at this school I had the opportunity to spend one day a week with the district level persons viewing “model” lessons. The model lessons are similar to our teacher evaluation lessons, except the normal class size of 54 to 64 is reduced to let the audience of other teachers in. The students who usually respond to the teachers questions have been prepared in advance. There are major issues in Chinese schools with rote learning and actively discouraging higher level learning skills. Finally as a special education teacher there is an appalling denial of any real need for special education. Struggling students are too often dismissed as “naughty boys or girls”. Is there something that Shanghai has that would be useful to our schools then the answer is yes. Shanghai and most cities in China have wonderful parents and grandparents who see education as one of the only means of getting ahead and support their single child.
    Shanghai is among the few cities in China where about 70% of the students
    who have passed the national exam after finishing senior academic high can be placed in a college program somewhere in China. In a country where 18 million new people enter the work force every year education matters.