Shanghai Surprise

We hear a lot about the Shanghai education system. Tom Friedman said in his column last October that the reason Shanghai’s schools “topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment)” is not a secret. He called it a “relentless focus on all the basics.” And now that I’ve been there, I agree with him.


I’m especially struck by the very clear ways teachers work together in grade-level and content groups and the way leadership is distributed to facilitate those groups. And I think there are some lessons there for our Innovative Professional Development Challenge districts.


At one school, the discussion leader rotates each week and all of the English teachers gathered in a room to describe their methods for teaching “common mistakes” when learning English.  They displayed their own students’ work as well as the common errors they saw in their classroom and then described how they addressed these errors.


In another example, a group of English teachers watched one teacher give a lesson and the English teachers were like the students. The teacher went in and out of her role as teacher and asked for feedback from the other teachers.  In both cases, it wasn’t clear to me who was the lead or expert teacher because the participation was so even, and the feedback so good from all of the teachers!


The major vehicle for teacher improvement is the purposeful use of time during the school day and year. Teachers have far less daily contact time with students and far more time for peer collaboration. For example, according to Zhang Minxuan, the president of Shanghai Normal University, a recent analysis showed that Shanghai teachers spend approximately 35 percent of their time with students, compared to California teachers, who spend 75 percent of their time with students. Shanghai teachers spend far more time working with their colleagues to prepare lessons, conduct peer observations, and review student work. One trade-off is that class sizes in Shanghai average 40-plus students.


But besides time being so critical to the development of their teachers, the Shanghai system also has career ladders in which most, if not all teachers are expected to improve over time, while a smaller number of exemplary teachers serve in key roles. Friedman called described it as “a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development.” Constant professional development.


I wonder now what it would have been like if we had framed our teacher effectiveness work around that first. Would that have been possible—to tuck evaluation under that broader theme of growth that seems to resonate with teachers? A lot to think about.


– C.