[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.
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.
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.