Center on International Education Benchmarking

When Deng Xiaoping took power in China not long after the death of Mao Zedong, he inherited a country whose economy and education system had both been destroyed by the preceding government.  Deng, concluding that there would probably not be another world war in the foreseeable future, decided to concentrate his energies on economic growth.  Declaring that, “To get rich is glorious,” he began an era of radical economic experimentation by introducing many elements of a market economy in Guangdong Province in the Pearl River Delta in southern China, and opening up China to direct foreign investment from all over the world.  Neither he nor China ever looked back.  Within a few years, the coastal provinces of China became the “workshop of the world,” experiencing explosive economic growth.  China as a whole has been experiencing growth of 9-10% per year ever since.  The speed and scale of these developments is probably without precedent in the history of the world.

In an effort to cleanse the country of the influence of the bourgeoisie, Mao had closed the schools and universities and sent educated people of all descriptions to the countryside to be “re-educated.”  But Deng understood that his economic vision could not be realized by an uneducated workforce.  From the beginning, he strongly emphasized the importance of making China as competitive from the standpoint of education achievement as he wanted it to be in economic terms.

Though its education system had been devastated by the Cultural Revolution, China was not without educational resources. Perhaps the most important of these resources was a deep and widely shared belief among the Chinese in the importance of education and their conviction that effort, not inherited intelligence, is the key to educational success.

For more than a millennium, advancement in Chinese society meant joining the military or the government bureaucracy.  The key to both was getting high scores on exams that all were eligible to take.  The Emperor himself was the chief examiner.  These exams were given in the arena of what we would today think of as the liberal arts: poetry, literature and so on.  Success entailed rote mastery of a great deal of material, much of it very abstruse.  But, at least in theory, a poor farmer’s son stood as good a chance of success as the offspring of a feudal lord, if only he put in enough effort.  Century in and century out, folk tales accumulated of young people who had emerged from poor and obscure lives into the sunlight of material and social success by making the nearly superhuman effort needed to succeed on the exams.

In Chinese society then and now, social safety nets were thin and porous.  Families looked to their children to support them in their old age.  And “family” included the whole extended family.  Thus the whole family got behind the student in his effort to succeed on the exams, and the whole family suffered if the student failed. Little wonder that, in this society, teachers were highly valued and students were willing to put in a lot of both time and effort into their education, and teaching became an occupation with high status in the society.

After Deng took over in China in the late 70s, the nation set out to reach parity with the West in education at every level, a truly daunting goal, given the very high rates of illiteracy in China, the extent of the prior destruction of its education infrastructure and teaching force and the depth of poverty in this very rural nation. Professors and teachers began to return from their exile in the rural communities to which they had been sent.  Schools and universities reopened.  Deng sent many in the government to be educated in the West.  By 2006, as many as 80% of China’s top leadership had been educated there.

China’s first objective was to reduce illiteracy in the adult population and improve enrollment rates in the primary schools on a scale that was unimaginable for most of the nations of the world, goals that it achieved in a remarkably short time.   At the higher education level, Deng set a goal of creating 100 research universities in China.  Later, his protégé, Jiang Zemin, would set a goal of having a substantial fraction of this number be world class.

In 1986, China passed a law requiring nine years of compulsory education.  By the late 1990s, this goal was achieved.  By 1997, the government had stopped assigning graduates to careers.  In 1999, the government required universities to expand enrollment by 50% by 2000, making it possible for many adults to get the university education they had missed in the Cultural Revolution.  They mandated an additional 25% expansion in 2000 and a 22% expansion in 2001.  By 2009, 99.4% of students were enrolled in primary education; 99% enrolled in junior secondary education; 79.2% at the senior secondary level; and 24% in higher education.

Now, enrollment in primary school is universal, as is enrollment in lower secondary school.  Upper secondary schools, combining the figures for academic and vocational education, now enroll about 80% of the cohort.

To achieve these goals, the Chinese needed teachers. Many of the well-educated young people who had been sent from the cities to the rural areas during the Cultural Revolution had become teachers in rural schools, though they had no training.  The post-Mao government sent many of them to teachers colleges for formal instruction in teaching and many returned to the cities to teach.  The government attracted many more by offering priority admissions in its universities to prospective teachers.  Though teachers’ pay is not high, it is rising and teachers have several ways of supplementing their incomes.

Normal class size in China is 50 students, though it can range to as many as 100 students, though class sizes are rapidly declining due to China’s one-child policy.  Teachers work in subject-based “teaching-study” groups every day to develop lessons and improve instruction.   Many hours go into the preparation of a single lesson.  Other teachers, principals and district education officers will observe the way individual teachers implement the crafted lessons.  The profession is divided into four grades or levels, and the teachers in the upper levels have major responsibility for leading the lesson development process, demonstrating effective lessons and bringing along teachers who are not as advanced as they are.

Once the Chinese government was on its way toward achieving its quantitative goals in the education arena, it began to turn to issues of quality.  In the schools, during much of the period following the accession of the Communists to power, a system of “key schools” had developed that became a source of strength for the system.   These were schools in which the state invested considerably more than in the regular state schools and which were therefore able to attract excellent teachers and provide top-notch facilities.  When Deng came to power, these schools became laboratories and models for other schools in China, creating a system for the development and spread of superior methods and curriculum.  Today, most of the students who attend Chinese universities come from key secondary schools.

For many Chinese, access to university education is synonymous with access to success in life.  The universities are graded by the Ministry of Education.  Much of one’s success depends on which university one gets into, and, within the university, which program one gets into.  And that depends, with very few exceptions, solely on one’s score on the entrance exams.  The score on the mathematics exam counts for not less than 25% of the total score, wherever one wants to go and whatever one plans to study.  The result is that Chinese students put an enormous effort into studying and, in particular, into the study of mathematics.   The amount of time that a typical university-bound secondary school student puts into studying may be as much as twice that of an American student of the same age.

These features of the Chinese system—the ancient belief that education is the only path to success, the conviction that it is effort and not genes that determines success in education, the meritocratic nature of the Chinese education system, the very high priority accorded education by the post-Mao government of China, the care with which lessons are constructed, the fact that teachers’ work is not private but is the object of continual professional observation and critique, the determination of the Chinese people to match western educational benchmarks, the enormous efforts made by Chinese students and the amount of time they put into studying, the emphasis in Chinese education on the study of mathematics—would all lead the observer to expect the Chinese to do well in international comparisons of student achievement.  But few expected what actually happened when Shanghai participated for the first time in the PISA rankings: Shanghai topped all of the other entrants in the 2009 PISA league tables.

In China, the four largest cities have the governmental status of provinces.  One of these cities is Shanghai.  While Beijing is the political capital of China, Shanghai is its business capital and its most international city.  It has long had a very special status in China, and has long enjoyed the right to take its own path in certain arenas of public policy when other cities and provinces have had to follow the policies set by the national government in Beijing.   This has been true in education.

Shanghai is China’s largest city, with a population of over 20 million people, and one of the largest cities in the world.  It accounts for only 1% of China’s population and 0.6% of its land area, but it produces one-eighth of China’s income.  It is important to remember that Shanghai is not typical of China as a whole, but just as important to keep in mind that China is a country that is extremely pragmatic, and makes a practice of experimenting carefully and then rapidly spreading what works through the entire nation.  One would expect other coastal provinces to be not far behind Shanghai and interior provinces to learn quickly from their coastal peers.

In 1985, Shanghai won for itself the right to set its own exams for entrance into its higher education institutions.  This led to a crucial element in the Shanghai reforms, major changes in the exams and therefore the curriculum from a heavy emphasis on memorization and rote learning to an emphasis on the ability to use what one has learned to solve real-world problems, on cross-disciplinary studies and on the ability to solve problems of a kind that one has not seen before, drawing on a deep understanding of what one has studied.

In 1988, Shanghai allowed its students more choice in what had previously been a highly prescribed curriculum.  That was followed in 1998 by integrating the sciences with the humanities and by a greater emphasis on active inquiry in the learning process.  These changes produced a curriculum balanced between a core curriculum that is the same for all students, an enriched curriculum that permits students to choose their own electives and an inquiry-based curriculum, which is implemented mainly in extra-curricular activities. Overall, the heart of the curriculum has moved from the acquisition of knowledge to the development of student capacity to acquire and effectively use knowledge over time.

Over the last two decades, Shanghai has worked hard to improve teachers’ capacities, too, steadily raising the level of education required to teach in the schools.  Many teachers now have master’s degrees.  Every teacher is expected to get at least 240 hours of professional development every five years.  A web site was created to provide a wide range of support services to teachers.  Under the slogan, “return class time to students,” teachers have been encouraged to lecture less and stimulate active student engagement more.  Another slogan states that “to every question there should be more than a single answer,” suggesting that the teacher may not have all the answers and the student responses to questions other than those the teacher envisioned may have real value.  Videos have been made and widely distributed that illustrate teaching methods that facilitate this shift in teaching style.

Shanghai has been a national leader in dealing with the problem of migrant children.  In China, the right to receive a wide variety of government services is restricted to the residents of the province providing those services.  But approximately one out of every five people in China are migrants, typically rural people who have left the impoverished countryside to find work in the booming cities.  Because, until recently, they did not have the right to send their children to schools in the province in which they find work, they had to take some of what little they earned to pay for expensive, but low quality private schooling.  The Shanghai government, recognizing the contribution that migrant workers have made to the city, have been working to find ways to provide not only places, but a quality education for the migrants in their education system.

Among the things that the Shanghai government has worked on is a long-standing problem of wide disparity in the quality of the schools in their basic education system. The decrease in the size of the school-age cohort has helped. The government has evaluated their schools in terms of the quality of the physical structure and also the quality of the education program and it has classified its schools on a four level index on both dimensions. Those that meet the government’s standards in both dimensions get an A. Those that qualify in neither get a D. Many C and D schools were simply closed. Some were merged into A and B schools, others reorganized after a renovation in the physical structure.

In many cases, teachers were transferred from high-performing schools to low-performing schools and from low-performing schools to high-performing schools.  In some cases, outstanding principals were asked to take over low-performing schools.  In other cases, young or low-performing teachers and principals were transferred to high-performing schools, and, when they had learned how to perform competently, transferred back to their original schools.

In still other cases, low-performing schools were paired with high-performing schools, and with Teacher Professional Development Institutes, to build their capacity through this collaborative arrangement. And, in the most recent development, high-performing school managements have been asked to take on one or more low-performing schools as satellite schools.  Often in such arrangements, a deputy principal in the high-performing school is asked to become the director of the satellite school.  Another form of the same arrangement is the formation of consortium or cluster of schools around one very strong school in a collaborative.

Notwithstanding Shanghai’s outstanding performance on the PISA assessments, many in Shanghai still see its education system as too rigid and its students as not sufficiently independent and creative to meet the challenges ahead.



25.15 million

Ethnic Makeup

Han Chinese 98.8%; other 1.2%


$379.5 billion; $15,679 per Capita

Major Industries

Services: 67.8%; Industry: 31.8%; Agriculture: 0.4%


Unemployment: 4.2%

Educational Attainment

Upper Secondary Graduation Rate: 88.3%

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