Vincent Capone

Op-Ed: What America’s Troubled Schools Can Learn From the Shanghai Model

A more cooperative educational system may make this scenario more likely. From youjiao.com

[Note: The following is a Tea Leaf Nation op-ed, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of the editors.]

The American education system has become a battlefield between different teaching philosophies contesting to get to the root of America’s ever-present achievement gap, characterized by a disparity in performance and available resources along racial and socioeconomic lines. Combating this gap has become the primary focus of reform movements such as Teach for America (TFA) and the Boston Teacher Residency, which place skilled teachers in America’s classrooms. American schools are desperately trying to find innovative strategies to enhance learning and improve teacher performance. 

For its part, China is plagued with its own achievement gap: A stark divide between rural and urban students. High populations of migrant children in large cities place a heavy strain on China’s education system, while its competitive national college entrance exam has recently fallen under heavy criticism.

Yet the Chinese city of Shanghai boasts one of the highest-scoring educational systems in the world, outperforming both the United States and the rest of China. With a population of over twenty million, Shanghai pairs high-performing schools with underperforming schools to give a broader student population access to quality education. 

How does Shanghai’s model stack up against American education? And what, if anything, can the U.S. take away from Shanghai? 

Cooperation makes it happen 

Shanghai’s improvement plan for its schools aims to slash the disparity between school districts that arises from a lack of experienced teachers and traditions. The key to this model is teacher cooperation. Experienced teachers form management teams of teacher-coaches that share their best practices in classroom management, lesson planning, and engagement with less experienced teachers. In certain cases, a strong school will take over the leadership of a weaker school, sending in a team of experienced administrators and teachers.

In this way, the Shanghai system leads to a virtuous cycle. By requiring all teachers to be degree holders and to engage in continuous professional development, Shanghai creates strong teachers. As they gain experience, they then communicate their best practices to others, fostering student growth and performance.

Shanghai and the U.S.: A study in contrasts

Teacher coaching exists in many parts of the U.S., yet Shanghai’s model starkly contrasts with American school reform. In the U.S., the first instinct of the underfunded is to cut recess, gym, and other physical activities, but in China warm-up calisthenics are a crucial element. Districts there reward star teachers but penalize the underperforming, ultimately placing the burden on the teacher. While Shanghai makes liberal use of teacher partnerships, American schools lack the funding to do so. 

A teacher from Fujian visits a Shanghai classroom. From fjedu.gov.cn

It’s not just about the money; Shanghai’s model is far more collaborative. In Shanghai, help for inexperienced teachers come from their more-experienced peers within the district. However, in the U.S., many districts fail to foster a sense of teacher community, instead replacing community with competition, as underperforming schools within the same district compete for survival. Shanghai’s model fosters community and allows teachers young and old to learn from one another. In the U.S., many teachers argue that senior faculty members are less responsive to classroom reforms and calls for change, especially when that change comes from outside organizations, such as TFA. In Boston, seasoned teachers have even resisted the TFA’s presence.

One reason is structural. The U.S. places much of the hope for its education reform on outside organizations which only provide short-term fixes. Programs such as TFA, which places recent college graduates into two-year teaching commitments in low-performing districts, fail to retain teachers after their commitment ends. More than half of TFA teachers leave teaching after their two-year commitment, with only 14.8% continuing to teach in low income schools, proving that outside programs are unsustainable in creating innovative career teachers. 

Having been a teacher in the Teach for America program myself, I’ve seen firsthand how ineffective the program can be. Aiming to eliminate the achievement gap, TFA uses assessment-driven teaching to meet this end goal. TFA teachers are encouraged to plan backwards, or “teach to the test.” But in Shanghai, it is becoming apparent that this model is less effective than creating engaged students, which is why Shanghai recently stopped testing its elementary students.    

We also can’t ignore the role that parents play—or in the case of the U.S., often fail to play. Many think the key to reforming American education is increasing parental involvement in the classroom. Many teachers find that when parental involvement is high, student success isn’t far behind. Yet many parents fail to jump on board, and teachers and parents often fail to communicate, making it hard for parents to see the role they need to play in their child’s academic success. This greatly contrasts with Shanghai’s model, which includes parents in every step of the curricular process, with parents devoting a student’s after-school hours into intensive study sessions. Chinese parents have a heavy hand in their child’s study methods, often paying for their child to attend tutorial schools which prepare students for passing public examinations. 

And finally, there’s race. The nature of Shanghai’s population is something observers often miss when evaluating the Shanghai model. Shanghai’s population, like most of China, is made up primarily of Han Chinese. This homogenous population lacks many of the issues that draw funds and attention away from their American counterparts. By contrast, America’s diverse population, with its racial issues, strict special education requirements, and language differences creates barriers that impede teacher performance for freshman teachers.  

What can we learn from Shanghai?

The cornerstone of the American education system is its ability to create a corps of students who are critical thinkers and problem-solvers. The U.S. is keen to point out other nations’ failure to emphasize critical thinking skills, a criticism often leveled at China. Shanghai is in fact working to remove itself from this category and make creativity and problem-solving skills a focal point. Indeed, it is clear that the U.S. could learn much from Shanghai’s improvement plan, not the other way around.

Bright futures mean big smiles. From youjiao.com

Sadly, I do not believe that the Shanghai model will catch on in the U.S.’s most troubled schools. Urban school districts face numerous obstacles on their road to achieving a passing grade–racial divides, under-achieving students, and low-parental involvement—that are not as widespread in the American suburbs, or in Shanghai. As a result, in the U.S. there is very little that a veteran suburban teacher can contribute to the best practices of a struggling urban teacher.

Instead, urban educators are left to produce their own strong examples to mentor the under-performing teachers in their district. However, with strict competition between schools, all vying to achieve passing state test scores to avoid being shut down the following year, it’s unlikely that teachers from one school will have the time to catch their breath and turn their attention to failing counterparts across the city.


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Vincent Capone

  • Samantha W.

    “Combating this gap has become the primary focus of reform movements such as Teach for America (TFA) and the Boston Teacher Residency, which place skilled teachers in America’s classrooms.”
    Does a 5-week training make you a skilled teacher? Huge overstep to say TFA provides SKILLED teachers. Just plain wrong, actually.
    “In certain cases, a strong school will take over the leadership of a weaker school, sending in a team of experienced administrators and teachers.”
    Sounds like NCLB. But more corporate, because it’s CHINA.
    “Districts there reward star teachers but penalize the underperforming, ultimately placing the burden on the teacher.”
    Oh, so merit pay. Cool. This gets worse and worse – sorry.
    “The U.S. is keen to point out other nations’ failure to emphasize critical thinking skills, a criticism often leveled at China.”
    But… it’s true. Chinese schools do not place a great deal of emphasis on soft skills – communication, collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving – compared to U.S. schools. But, we’re just as guilty. Look at what’s going on in Texas – banning critical thinking in curricula.
    You have just compared apples to oranges. Thanks.

    • Vincent

      Interesting opinions. I just wanted to take a moment to clarify some of my points and some of your arguments. While I agree that TFA often fails to produce skilled teachers, there are many TFA alums who come out highly skilled compared to the veterans in the district. Furthermore, TFA members go through education programs as they perform their commitments. And the Boston Teacher Residency is much more teacher-centered and intensive than TFA in producing teachers who stay in the district after their commitment.

      Merit pay is found on both sides of the coin. Merit pay in the US is just as bad (probably worse) than in China.

      I agree that some areas of the US are making poor choices in the areas of curricula development and fostering strong critical thinking skills. However, I don’t believe the systems are “apples and oranges” as you put it. Both systems have under-performing schools that are on the chopping block. Both systems are highly segregated (the US has one of the most segregated school systems in the west), and both utilize teacher coaching (albeit in different ways). There are many similarities between the two and each has its own weaknesses and strengths. If theories and practices from both the US and China could be fused together, I believe it would create a much better education system for both nations.

  • http://twitter.com/alanatpaterra Alan Engel

    Overcoming the gaps between wealthier white-majority schools and minority-dominant schools was one motivation for ‘busing’ in American cities. In the U.S., strong schools and weak schools are divided primarily along racial lines. So there are two gaps to overcome, wealth and race. Race is the more difficult gap.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Great point and I think that’s why the practice of busing is so controversial in America. In my own opinion, I think more steps need to be made to desegregate communities and improve neighborhood schools in impoverished areas rather than resort to busing. School lotteries work well in some cities, but I think it also solidifies the belief that under performing schools will not be able to service one’s children.

  • dfrog

    Sorry but the author has not done his homework.
    This is not the “Shanghai system” this is a derivative of the older established Finnish education system.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      The Shanghai system does not refer to a specific model, but is just a general term I used to discuss what’s happening in Shanghai at present. While you’re right in the fact that I didn’t take a look at how it relates to historical teacher movements in other nations, I also didn’t mention that this originated in Shanghai.

      • dfrog

        Well Vincent, I would say Finnish education system’s results are extremely remarkable in comparison to pretty much any other country in the world and furthermore its success reflects later on the competitiveness of a knowledge intensive economy.

        So when you have an education system such as the Finnish which works in a western society and has to deal with rural, suburban and cosmopolitan students and handles inequalities in such a successful manner for such a long period, it would be a much better reference and parallel for another western country when compared to the short-term results of an experiment limited to a cosmopolitan area in an oriental country where students live under tremendous pressure to perform in exams only.

        • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

          I agree and I’ve read up on the Finnish system and applied it to US classrooms before in education courses I’ve taken. However, the point of the article was to provide a comparative analysis between Shanghai and the U.S. While I could have brought in other (more suitable) models, it would have clouded the main points: which were to see if what Shanghai is doing is sustainable in the U.S. And I have to argue that I believe some elements are.

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.zhu2 Charles Zhu

    I wanted to mention that the “teacher collaboration” model is being implemented in some places, with good results. The Gates Grant to SDHC is the paramount example:

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Thanks for sharing!

  • Sheryl Sze

    Considering Shanghai is (one of) the most developed cities in China, should its model be applicable to the whole of U.S.?

    I’m also not sure if I understand the article’s implication about America’s diversity, special education requirements, and language differences creating barriers for teachers, particularly when it’s contrasted with the supposedly “homogeneous” student population in the supposedly more successful Shanghai. What is being suggested exactly?

    With Shanghai’s large population of migrant workers from other parts of China, surely it will do well in addressing its own diversity issues, which is both cultural and linguistic – Migrant workers, by definition, moved from various areas outside of Shanghai and their mother tongue would be spoken dialects that are often not understood by speakers of the standard Mandarin Chinese. Are these children also benefiting from the Shanghai Model’s success?

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Your last point is a great question that is definitely worth examining further!

      While migrant children must play a role in changing Shanghai’s seemingly homogeneous classrooms, I do not believe that that will make Shanghai classrooms as diverse as American classrooms. In the US, teachers struggle with race in many large cities. Racial segregation in schools is still very prevalent in the US and a big argument in education today is how to best train teachers in urban settings on how to relate to their students of different backgrounds.

      Urban schools are also more prone to inclusion, which puts special needs students in the general classroom. While I’m for this method, I do believe that certain cases warrant students to attend either special education classes on a full or part time basis. However many urban schools cannot afford enough special education teachers and special needs students are put into classrooms when they are not nearly at the level warranted. This creates a huge problem for teachers, many of whom are not trained in special ed. and therefore have a difficult time meeting the needs for these students, especially when students with IEP plans need very detailed and mandated support that new teachers without a sp. ed. background often struggle to meet.

      Same can be said to English Language Learners who are placed into the general classroom because many schools can’t afford ESL classes, and teachers must meet the students’ needs without having a background in ESL. I am aware that different dialects and minorities in China may have language barriers of their own, but that number is much smaller than in the US.

      Basically what I’m suggesting is: as of right now, there are many different roles that American teachers are placed into than their Shanghai counterparts (at least for the time being). And this is putting strain on America’s schools. And while Shanghai has a great support system set up to aid teachers, the same is not always found in American school districts, especially those which need it most.

      It’s a huge topic that warrants a lot of discussion and I am always happy to discuss it further.

      • Sheryl Sze

        If the homogeneity of the Shanghai classroom is a reflection of migrant children being excluded from mainstream education, then I don’t think America has much to learn from it’s model. It goes without saying that America won’t and probably doesn’t want to go back to a society where the interest of under-privileged are disregarded.

        I haven’t been able to find much details on how Shanghai manages to include migrant workers in the education system. There one report on Shanghai education but it reads to me like a PR campaign for its success:


        Beijing, on the other hand, is still busy shutting down “migrant schools” run by volunteers:

        http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2093175-1,00.html (2011)

        http://www.eeo.com.cn/2012/0724/230539.shtml (2012, sorry I can’t find the English ver)

        Don’t get me wrong, China has made tremendous progress in the past few decades, but the “efficiency” often comes with a high cost of humanity. I aspire to the day when the country is willing to slow down so that the under-privileged are not left behind.

        • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

          I completely agree (and thank you for sharing those links!). I think the last part you wrote about efficiency coming at a huge cost of humanity ties really well into your other comment about the rural class, and I think it’s clear that they are the ones on the losing side throughout Chinese modern history (ex: Great Leap Forward, the famine that followed, Three Gorges Dam flooding, evictions, migrant workers, etc.). I too look towards the day when the Communist Party can take more of an effort in the well-being of the rural class, but on the other hand the sheer number of people makes it a tremendous effort.

          • Sheryl Sze

            I hope I’m not digressing too much from your article’s main subject! : )

            It’s mind-bending how many hurdles China needs to jump in order to move further ahead (the GDP growth seems the easy bit in comparison), and inevitably, those who are benefiting the most from the current growth will be losing some of their privilege in order to look after those who are now suffering the most. Where would the motivation of change come from? I’d be very interested to hear your views.

            By the way, do you have any books, blogs or sites to recommend for one to understand modern China? In addition to Tea Leaf Nation of coz ;)

          • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

            That’s a great question – I love discussing both history and Chinese history/current affairs so feel free to keep the discussion going! In my own opinion I foresee China becoming a lot like America and other western nations. Today, the middle class is growing tremendously and will continue to do so, which is leaving a lot of rural poor in the dust. While the number of rural poor remains high, I don’t foresee that group being able to motivate change when the new middle and upper classes don’t feel much camaraderie with the rural class anymore. What used to be about observing and learning from the struggles of the peasants has definitely changed. When I was in China years ago, it seemed to me that most urban Chinese felt a sense of pity for the rural poor, but not so much that they would be motivated to fight for change in their cause. What are your opinions on that matter?

            As for resources, if you want to read up on Chinese modern history, the go-to is Spence’s History of Modern China. I also just read Rana Mitter’s “Modern China” which discussed the recent growth in China and what it means for China’s future. If you’re interested in Chinese web culture, I suggest Yang’s “The Power of the Internet in China.” As for blogs, aside from Tea Leaf I subscribe to ChinaHush, ChinaSmack, and Danwei. Although in my own opinion their articles are not as robust as the ones on here.

    • dfrog

      Exactly… as mentioned, the Shanghai education system is a derivative of the Finnish system which due to its success, geographical implantation, student population distribution and culture, not to mention long term results reflected on the overall economy, are a far better reference for the U.S.or any other country as a matter of fact.

      • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

        Great points about migrant children. One thing I find so fascinating is that Mao held up the rural classes as the backbone of the revolution, yet after the Mao era ended and China “opened up,” they’ve taken to the back burner once again.

        • Sheryl Sze

          I know very little about the many revolutions in modern Chinese history, I only read some reports that the rural class was useful during the civil war (probably motivated by the prospect of sharing the wealth that would be stripped from the upper/middle classes), but I don’t see a conflict between them being of use during a civil war and them being of a different use (as a workforce of mass production) during modern days.

          In fact, during the cultural revolution, the rural classes were officially praised as the heroes of the revolution but in reality, they hardly reaped much benefits. Professor Qin Hui from Qing Hua university gave a talk in 2012 from his first hand experiences.

          Here’s his talk is in Chinese, the talk is long but well worth the time IMHO:

  • Bruce Humes

    Mr. Capone’s piece is well thought out and based on reality — at least as far as I know it, and I’ve lived in China almost three decades.

    There are three things that need to be understood about the “Shanghai model” before you consider whether it might be useful for schooling in the US:

    1) Shanghai is a very unique city and in no way can be seen as representative of other cities in the PRC. For example, while girls tend to be taken out of school after 12-13 years of age in the countryside, the great majority of local girls in Shanghai finish high school and a large proportion go on to university;

    2) What Mr. Capone refers to as “parental involvement” is a level of participation that most Americans would find mind-boggling. Parents are fully expected to ensure that their children — even in elementary school — spend 3-4 hours at home each evening doing homework, and they need to work closely with their children to explain math problems and solutions, etc. Weekends and summertime are not considered free time, and even working-class parents are expected to send their children to cram school or hire tutors no matter how they get the money;

    3) The excellent education available in Shanghai schools is largely “off limits” to the children of non-locals who labor in the city. Like Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen — the most developed cities in China — Shanghai uses every means possible to deny low-cost public education to children of migrant workers, no matter how many years they have resided and worked in the city. This has two outcomes: middle-class children of locals don’t have to rub shoulders with the children of working-class non-locals, and test score averages are naturally higher…

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Great points! Thank you for your compliment. I agree with your comment about parental involvement being completely different from what America parents might think of in terms of “being involved” (PTA, classroom donations, bake sales, etc.) and it’s always interesting to note that it’s a culturally ingrained notion. I had a lot of Chinese friends growing up who went to private study schools in the summer and Chinese schools on weekends.

  • Bill

    I dunno…soon as I saw Shanghai being used as a ref, I wanted to throw my hands up again. Just because Shanghai performs well, doesn’t mean the USA ed system is absolutely inferior. I’m actually quite tired of seeing how our systems compare to that of Shanghai’s. You will notice China never uses their Guizhou, or Hunan school systems as representatives of China in any int’l school comparison. And how would Shanghai fare if the migrants were mixed in with their uber students? Alot of the USA ed systems unfortunately will never change for the better until we migrate away from the federalistic approach so prevalent in the States’ today. And we have cultural issues so deeply ingrained in our teaching of kids that our overly politically correct society will for many years to come refuse to address them..(classic ex….”black kids need black teachers, black principals and black super’s of ed). Hence our heterogenous society indeed makes it harder to have progress vis a vis a homogenous society. Maybe if America was just a country of one race, we wouldn’t have such a conversation now? Finally, we should just accept the fact that Asians in general value “stressing” ed more than we do, And it nothing to do with how much $ is spent. None. Zilch. I taught Japanese and CHinese students with 35 students per classroom, and terrible facilities compared to the States. Didn’t mean a thing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/vincent.capone Vincent Capone

      Exactly! Great argument. If you read my piece closely, you’ll note that in the end, my tone is that I agree the two systems are nothing alike and that very little can be directly applied.

  • DC

    The whole thing is simple…figure out kids need to learn…and then teach it…

    Stop worrying about race, ethnicity and most particularly sexual orientation, none of which have anything to do with education…stick to your knitting…

    Stop making excuses…only make objective measurements…

    Stop rewarding failure…if the kid doesn’t pass the test, just, flunk him and hold him back…regardless of how he “feels”…”feelings” have no IQ…but don’t make it “punishment”…make it an objective rule…tell the kid and his parents, “You can go to the next class when you pass the test…period, end of sentence…and the rule applies to everybody…that’s not punishment…that’s just the way it is…”

    If the kid chooses to drop out or the parents choose to take their kids out of school, that’s HIS or THEIR choice…don’t try to stop him…or them…