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Cross-posted at Education Week.

Consider Shanghai. Now one of the best-performing education systems in the world, according to the OECD, it had no education system at all in 1978, when Deng Xiao Ping took the reins in China. It had been destroyed by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. Now boasting a population of 24 million, it is growing by about 1 million people a year, about 400,000 of whom are migrants, most arriving very poorly educated, many speaking a version of Chinese unlike the version spoken in Shanghai.

How on earth did Shanghai’s school board, the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, do it?  How did they manage to accomplish these remarkable results on such a vast scale in so short a period of time? If you ask them, they will tell you that they have a plan and they pay a lot of attention to careful implementation of that plan. The planning process is the key, both to the quality of the plan and to its implementation.

I know. You will say that this is a Communist country; a handful of people at the top make the plan and then order everyone else to implement it, in the style of the now-defunct Soviet Union, top down. But it turns out to be much more complicated, much more interesting and certainly much more effective than that.

The planning process the Commission now uses is the brainchild of Minxuan Zhang. Almost 20 years ago, Zhang was the Deputy Director of the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission, in charge of planning. His task was to produce the five-year plan to begin in 2000. He wanted a process that would cast a wide net, be owned by a very large number of stakeholders and yet be coherent and powerful. He wanted a plan that would be visionary, but actionable. He wanted the problems to be addressed and the strategies chosen to deal with them to be based on solid evidence. And he wanted a plan that would be so widely owned that everyone involved would want to implement it.

Plans for every aspect of government operations, at every level, are made in China every five years. The plans made for education are part of this system. Ordinarily, the plans begin with general guidance from the national government in Beijing and are then translated into more detailed plans at the provincial and municipal levels.  But Shanghai is both a municipality and a province and it has long been regarded as the leading province in China when it comes to education. In recent years, Shanghai put its education plan together first and then the national government put the national guidance together based on Shanghai’s plan.

In each cycle, the work on the plan starts a few years before its projected release.  When, in 1998, Zhang started the process for the year 2000 plan, he divided the content into 30 different areas. He then asked the Shanghai Institute for Education Research, a body affiliated with the Commission, to conduct a program of research on each one of those areas, to gather the relevant facts, analyze the challenges and present the relevant research. The job of the research institute was not to do the research, but to organize it. Anyone could submit proposals to do the research. The research institute wrote a solicitation for research proposals and selected the best ones they got. In those arenas in which it received multiple proposals that were sound but offered different perspectives of value, they funded more than one. In the area of education for migrant children, for example, they received 10 proposals, two of which were very good but represented totally different perspectives and they funded both. In total, they selected 45 teams to cover the 30 component parts of the plan.

While this was going on, Zhang asked the mayor to provide funds that would enable many key officials, other stakeholders and groups to hold meetings to discuss the education challenges in Shanghai and provide advice to the Commission as it put the plan together. The results of the research were made available to these groups.

Then Zhang asked three teams to each to take the next step in the process.  Each of the three teams was to take all the research that had been done and all the advice that had come from all the meetings and put together a draft plan, working independently from the other two teams. To get this done, Zhang first asked East China Normal University to assemble a team. East China is a national university and does not get its funds from the Commission, so Zhang knew it would produce a plan that reflected its own views, not what it thought the Commission wanted. Then he turned to the Shanghai Academy for Social Sciences to do the same thing, for the same reasons.  It, too, is an independent body and very highly regarded, but would present a view from outside the schools community. And, finally, he asked the Shanghai Institute of Education Sciences, which is affiliated with the Commission, to prepare a plan because he wanted to get the perspective of people who knew the system really well and who would, like the other two, be inclined to base their views on the facts, on research and good analysis.

When the three draft plans were finished, Zhang asked the heads of the three teams to present their ideas and plans at a meeting that included the mayor, the vice-mayors, the heads of various key commissions and other senior Shanghai officials. The entire group then engaged in a lively discussion of the issues and the proposals for dealing with them.

Then Zhang called the three teams together.  He told them he only needed one plan. He would give them two weeks to produce it. He had paid for them to do their work at one of the nicer hotels in Shanghai. They were not to emerge from the hotel until they had agreed on one plan.

When the merged plan had been produced, Zhang shared it with the state education commission in Beijing, the education commissions in nearby provinces, UNESCO, the Hong Kong education authorities and others. Then he asked them to come to Shanghai for a meeting to discuss their reactions with the mayor and the heads of the three teams that had produced the draft. The draft was revised on the basis of this feedback.

Then Zhang released this draft to the public. Suggestions for changes came from every quarter. It was revised again and sent again to the national government in Beijing for final approval. Which was forthcoming, and so the plan was adopted.

The various parts of the Shanghai education system had been consulted throughout the process and the views of professional educators taken into account. They had been asked in the final stages of preparation to present plans for implementing the proposals being made. So the broader plan included a detailed implementation plan.  Each bureau in the Commission itself had a plan and each school district had an implementation plan. When the broader plan was approved the system was ready to go. Everyone knew what he or she needed to do.

None of this would have worked were it not for the fact that the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission itself funds all the institutions whose cooperation is required to implement the plan and were it not for the fact that the Commission is an integral part of the municipal government, reporting to the mayor. Nor would it have worked were it not for the fact that Beijing was looking to Shanghai to take the lead on education planning and therefore did not impose a straightjacket on Shanghai as it put its plan together.

Was this bottom up planning or top down planning? The answer is that it is a brilliant combination of both. At no point did Zhang, the member of the Commission in charge of planning, sit down and write the plan. He got other people to do that and in the process produced a very long list of people in and out of government who owned the plan. But, though many were involved, and many ended up owning the plan that was produced, the plan was still coherent and powerful.

Unlike all the plans that had gone before, which were simply collections of separate ideas and proposals, this plan had a strong theme, a driving idea, which gave it that coherence.  Because Zhang turned to two teams outside his bureaucracy to take key roles in producing the plan, it was written from a fresh and wider perspective than it would have been had the school system itself written it. But, because one of the three teams came from close to the system and the people who would have to implement it were deeply involved in producing the implementation plans, they were not standing in the wings with their arms crossed in mute defiance when the plan was finally approved.

What was truly stunning for us as outside observers was that when we visited schools all over Shanghai and talked with people in district offices, we found that they were using the language of the plan and the central concepts in it to describe what they were doing. The planning process in Shanghai is not an empty formality. It produces widespread and deep changes in practice at every level of the system. It works. Another five-year planning process has already started and is using the same strategy to organize the work even though Professor Zhang is no longer at the Shanghai Municipal Education Commission.

By and large, we do not do plans in the United States. Decisions on individual policies are made by boards and commissions and bureaus and all that, but these decisions are made independently of one another and none need fit into any overall plan. These decisions are often in conflict, but these conflicts are rarely resolved because the individuals and bodies that make these decisions do not report to each other. Because there is no plan, there is no need to resolve the conflicts. But this makes for incoherence at the operational level.

It does not have to be that way. A state could choose to have comprehensive plans for its education system. So could school districts and municipalities. Any state, district or municipality that choses to put such plans together would do well to look at how Shanghai is doing it as a starting point for their own design.