Shanghai High School

Shanghai teens are kicking the rest of the world’s butt, scholastically speaking.

PISA, or the Programme for International Student Assessment sponsored by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) releases surveys ranking global achievement of 15-year olds by nation. Areas assessed include math and reading. This year Shanghai teens are first. (It should be noted that city regions Shanghai, Macao, and Hong Kong were surveyed, but not the entire school-aged children subset of the 1.3 billion population of China.)

Finnish schools, while enjoying dominance for several years, have slipped slightly.

Here’s a round-up of international reaction to the results, after the jump:

BBC News: PISA Literacy Survey–Finland Loses Top Spot to Asians

Angel Gurria, the OECD’s secretary-general, said the survey suggested that countries with similar levels of prosperity could produce very different results.

“This shows that an image of a world divided neatly into rich and well-educated countries and poor and badly educated countries is now out of date,” he added.

Agence France Presse: Shanghai Teenagers Are The World’s Smartest

“More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just three percent,” the OECD said.

“In Shanghai, a city of 20 million, they followed policies to fight against social inequality, to target the schools that were in most difficulty and send them the best performing heads and most experienced teachers,” he said.

South Korea came second in comprehension, fourth in maths and sixth in science and Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan were well-placed.

Analysing the results, experts found that high performing school systems prefer to pay teachers more rather than reduce class sizes, and countries that force underperformers to repeat years to do badly overall.

Financial Times: Why Are Chinese Schoolkids So Good?

So why did Shanghai do so well? The OECD points to Chinese school reforms: it was impressed by the initiative shown by teachers, who are now better paid, better trained and keen to mould their own curricula. Poor teachers are speedily replaced. China has also expanded school access, and moved away from learning by rote.

The last point is key: Russia performs well in rote-based assessments, but not in Pisa, says Schleicher, head of the indicators and analysis division at the OECD’s directorate for education. China does well in both rote-based and broader assessments.

The OECD also points to cultural factors – widespread expectations of high performance, and pressure from parents. And it’s the interaction between culture and the system that is hard to untangle, says Schleicher.

NYT: Shanghai Test Scores Stun Educators

“Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., who served in President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, referring to the groundbreaking Soviet satellite launching. Mr. Finn, who has visited schools all across China, said, “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 10 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”

“We have to see this as a wake-up call,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in an interview on Monday.

“I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better,” he added. “The United States came in 23rd or 24th in most subjects. We can quibble, or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”

“This is the first time that we have internationally comparable data on learning outcomes in China,” Mr. Schleicher said. “While that’s important, for me the real significance of these results is that they refute the commonly held hypothesis that China just produces rote learning.”

“Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations,” he said.

Straits Times (Singapore): S’pore Students Excel

Singapore students ranked as follows:

*Second in Mathematics

*Fourth in Science

*Fifth in Reading


*Singapore has the second highest proportion (35.6 per cent) of top performers in mathematics, after Shanghai.


*Singapore has the second highest proportion (19.9 per cent) of top performers in science, after Shanghai.

Interestingly, as of this writing, English-language versions of China Daily (Xinhua) and The Chosun Ilbo didn’t feature a story on the PISA test results, while The South China Morning Post hid theirs behind a paywall.

Picture credit: By EtherealBlade (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

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