Tucker’s Lens: Lessons in Teacher Quality from Shanghai

By Marc Tucker

Those of you who make it your business to follow the PISA survey reports know that, in 2010, the first year that PISA reported results for Shanghai, China, this megalopolis of 23 million souls came out on the top of the world’s league tables.  The same thing happened again in 2013.

Since then, there has been some controversy about these results, focused on questions arising from the rules governing the enrollment in Shanghai government schools of the children of migrants who work in Shanghai but who came from other provinces.  We’ve collected a sampling of views on all sides of this issue here, including our own.

ChinesestudentsLike me and, in fact, like many Chinese officials, you may hope that Shanghai and China as a whole moves as quickly as possible to abolish the household registration system that is the critic’s main target.  But you should think twice before dismissing the achievement of Shanghai’s education system on the PISA league tables as suspect on the basis of the migrant population statistics.  It is very important to bear in mind that Shanghai’s education system rests in part on favorable cultural factors that are widely shared with other Asian countries and uses strategies that are very similar to those used by a number of those countries and provinces in Asia that are also at the top of the PISA league tables. So it should not surprise us that Shanghai is among the top performers.  But it has also adopted a set of policies and practices that may be unique to Shanghai, policies and practices that could plausibly account for education system performance that is superior to that of the rest of the world.

Right after the most recent PISA results came out, I interviewed a number of people in China and elsewhere who I had reason to believe were in an unusually good position to provide some insights into Shanghai’s achievement.  They include Kai-ming Cheng, a professor at Hong Kong University who has been a member of the Hong Kong Education Commission, is intimately familiar with the Shanghai reforms and was recently appointed to the China State Advisory Committee on Curriculum Reform; Tom Corcoran, Co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at Columbia University and an early observer of the work of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission; Ben Jensen, a principal at the Grattan Institute in Melbourne, Australia, whose research on several aspects of the Shanghai system have drawn the notice of many observers; Vivien Stewart, Senior Advisor to Asia Society for education, and earlier, to the United Nations, who has been visiting, observing and leading delegations to China for more than a decade; and Minxuan Zhang, President of Shanghai Normal University and deputy director of the Shanghai Education Commission.  You can find an edited volume of the interviews here.

When I first read these interviews through, I was rather excited.  They succeed, I think, at giving a rounded, nuanced and coherent picture of a very complex system, one that merits serious study by anyone who is responsible for turning a good education system into a great one or who is advising such a person.

ChineseLessonsCoverI do not intend to summarize the interviews here.  I would only do the interviews a disservice by attempting one.  But I would like to make some observations on one aspect of the Shanghai strategies that seems central to me: the attention to teacher quality.

Consider the situation that Shanghai, like the rest of China, faced when Mao died, the Cultural Revolution had spent its force and Deng Xiaoping took the reins in China.  The schools and universities had been closed for a decade.  There was no money.  The majority of the nation’s inhabitants were illiterate.  Enrollment rates for the primary schools, when they opened, were very low and vanishingly small in secondary schools.  For years, the Chinese government had little choice but to concentrate its efforts on reducing adult illiteracy and boosting primary school enrollment.  These are the priorities not of first world countries but of third world countries

Even now, high school enrollment is low in many Chinese provinces and boosting those rates is a high government priority there.  In this environment, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission did not have the options available to advanced industrial countries.  It was not in a position, like Finland, to require that all its teachers have masters’ degrees.  It did not have the money to pay its teachers at the same rates as high status professionals.  It could not make a big play to get a large fraction of the best high school graduates.  It did not have schools of education staffed with a professoriate that had read the world’s best education research literature and was prepared to create teaching schools based on the vaunted medical model.  I’ve often asked myself what I would have done faced with such a challenge.

The Center for International Education Benchmarking now has two research efforts underway, one led by Linda Darling-Hammond and the other by Ben Jensen, that should be able to shed much more light on the choices made by the Shanghai government.  So all I can offer here is a very provisional commentary on the strategies chosen by Shanghai.  If I have it anywhere near right, though, the Shanghainese have a lot to teach us all about how a country or state can produce a very high quality teaching force with very constrained resources.

First of all, Shanghai requires all of their teachers to have a bachelor’s degree in the subject they will teach.  This is true for all levels of the system, including primary school (elementary school in the United States).  The United States typically requires only secondary school teachers to have majored in the subject they will teach and often allows districts to reassign teachers who have majored in one subject to teach another subject, often unrelated to the subject they were educated in.  Some countries we track require all primary teachers to have at least minored in the subject they will teach, and all secondary teachers to have majored in that subject.  In many countries, all secondary school teachers and upper primary school teachers specialize by subject, but lower primary teachers do not.  In others, all primary school teachers specialize by subject.  In the United States, elementary school teachers typically teach all the subjects in the curriculum.  The Shanghai requirement that all teachers have an undergraduate major in the subject they will teach and that all teachers in the primary schools specialize is the toughest requirement we know of anywhere in the world.  This policy position could, by itself, explain a major portion of the variance in student performance.

ChineseteacherBut, if all teachers in training major in the subject they will teach and they only need bachelors’ degrees, how do they learn the craft of teaching?  Some of that is evidently taught in the schools of education they attend.  But, as far as I can see, the real answer is apprenticeship.  Shanghai has a thirteen-step career ladder.  There are fewer than 1,000 teachers (a tiny number in a city with a population of 23 million) in the top step.  It is a great honor to get to the higher steps on the ladder.  Every new teacher in Shanghai is assigned to a mentor teacher, who is often relieved entirely of teaching duties in order to mentor a small set of new teachers.  The mentees, who have a greatly reduced teaching load while this is going on, a period of one to two years, spend their time watching their mentor do master lessons in teaching and being critiqued by their mentor when they are themselves teaching.  This is, of course, the way many of the greatest painters in the world were taught their craft.  For a country trying desperately to make the most of a small cadre of great teachers thirty or so years ago, it is hard to think of a strategy with more leverage than apprenticeship to quickly expand the number of great teachers.  And, indeed, it is hard to imagine a better strategy right now, when Shanghai is well over the hump of its teacher supply problem.

Now here is the kicker.  Not only does Shanghai have an impressive strategy for producing high quality beginning teachers at low cost; it also has a winning strategy for continuously improving the skills of teachers already in the workforce.  I mentioned the teacher career ladder system a moment ago.  It is also a mentoring system.  All the teachers, except those at the very top, have a mentor, who is also a coach.  Mentors and mentees meet regularly.  The aim is continuing improvement of performance.  But that is only part of the system.  Grade level teachers and subject matter teachers meet regularly in their schools, typically once a week.  Here, again, the main focus is improvement in performance—of teachers as well as students.  But this is a transaction not between the principal and the individual teacher but among the teachers themselves.  They are working together to build more and more engaging lessons, trying out the lessons they build together, critiquing each other’s practice as they learn to teach those lessons and so on.  They are also working together to perfect the questions they are asking their students, not solo—off in their individual classrooms—but together.  The questions are a crucial part of the lessons, used by the teacher to find out whether the students are actually absorbing what is being taught, the extent to which they misunderstand what has been taught and the nature of those misunderstandings and the degree to which their fixes for those misunderstandings are working.  What is called formative evaluation in some countries is thus built in to the very texture of the lesson itself and the teachers work together to make this system as effective as possible.

In this environment, the teachers are accountable to one another, not to the supervisor, for their performance, and there is no place for them to hide if they are slackers or inept.  Thus the system not only is the vehicle for disciplined continuous improvement, but, at the same time, sets a high floor for the teaching standards in the school.  The system I have just very briefly outlined does not require extensive data gathering by officials, nor does it require cumbersome administrative accountability systems.  It is built right into the normal routines of the school professional culture.

The literature on expert performance strongly suggests that high expertise is not so much a function of rare talent as of disciplined effort on the part of the individual over a period of ten years to improve one’s performance, day in and day out.  Time in service does not make for expertise.  Talent does not necessarily confer expertise.  You have to work at it, hard, every day, for years.  The Shanghai system creates an environment in which that becomes every teacher’s routine, all the time.

ChinesekidsThese themes of teacher quality, apprenticeship and mentorship reappear in another very important venue—the topic of school underperformance.  As the cities and provinces in the industrializing East became home to increasing numbers of ill-educated migrants and their children and those cities and provinces started to enroll these children in the government schools, it was often the case that the schools with the largest enrollment of migrant students greatly underperformed the regular government schools.  The Shanghai Municipal Education Commission addressed this problem by “apprenticing” low-performing schools, principals and teachers to high-performing schools, principals and teachers.  Sometimes the principal or some key teachers in the low-performing schools would be sent for a while to a high-performing school for their apprenticeship.  Sometimes the principal or some key teachers would be sent to a low-performing school to serve as masters for the apprentices in that school.  Sometimes the principal of a high-performing school would be asked to take responsibility for one or more low-performing schools.  The government did not simply reassign people from high-performing schools to lower-performing schools.  But they let it be known that one’s prospects for moving up the career ladder would be rather limited unless one had seen service in a low-performing school.  And it became a considerable honor for the principal of a school to be selected to take a low-performing school under his or her wing.

There is far more to this system than I can relate in this small space.  You will find much more in the interviews in the volume we have just published, to which I referred above.  But even that only scratches the surface of a system that will, I assure you, reward your further study.