The Real Shanghai Secret

01 February 2014
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shanghai-1A teacher, Ms Zhang, slapping a student in the face at her class. The Chinese characters on the wall say ‘self-confidence’, ‘being united as one’ and ‘diligence’. (From the internet)










 The Real Shanghai Secret

Ann Qiu

The New York Times accepts opinion articles on any topic for its Op-Ed page. On October 23rd it published a piece by Thomas Friedman on the education system in Shanghai ( ). It includes the following paragraph:

'When you sit in on a class here and meet with the principal and teachers, what you find is a relentless focus on all the basics that we know make for high-performing schools but that are difficult to pull off consistently across an entire school system. These are: a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development, a deep involvement of parents in their children's learning, and insistence by the school's leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.'

It sounds rather good until you read what Ann Qiu says in this article, which first appeared on the Education Revolution site ( )

When I got a link to The Shanghai Secret on 27th Oct. and was asked to write what I know about Shanghai as a local-born, locally educated, independent educator, I was hesitant. One reason was that it was not so easy for me to access the New York Times because of the 'G. Wall.' (If you have visited the Great Wall,pf China you can imagine how powerful the Golden Wall is for blocking the Internet.)

However, when I finally read what Mr. Friedman said to the American people through this very influential newspaper, I couldn't help feeling upset. As a famous American journalist, how much was he allowed to explore in Shanghai? Being blocked by language, how much was he able to hear and understand of what was really happening around him in his short visit? An American who has interests in China at least should have some basic understanding of Chinese contemporary history.

To me, Mr. Friedman is not such a person. Indeed, he is a real foreigner. The worst thing is misinterpretation, when a person just wants a surface explanation of the enviable results achieved by Shanghai students in 2009 to support the standardised testing based education model, and persuade American students to 'beat' the Chinese in phony competitions.

Please be aware that a lot of young Chinese are studying abroad! This number is rising annually, and the students are getting younger. It is common sense to Chinese people that we cannot change the monopolised and red-coloured education system, but now we can, at least, vote with our feet.  Please ask yourself why the wealthy class of Chinese parents want to spend a large amount of money on 'the worse education' in the USA? Are they really fools? They must have their reasons!

The major reasons for pursuing educational opportunities outside China are rather obvious to us Chinese: less compulsory, less homework, fewer boring mechanical exercises, fewer standardised questions and answers, and fewer threatening requests. Children can be treated as human beings instead of being force-fed homework, rote learning and standardised tests. Children have freedom to learn, even the opportunity to make mistakes. Children are encouraged to think critically and independently. Children can explore their curiosity.

That is what well-to-do Chinese parents are paying for: freedom, openness and humanity!

After reading Mr. Friedman's introduction, I became curious about the Qiangwei Primary School. In order to know a little background of its background, I tried to baidu it (every Chinese Wangmin knows why we use baidu instead of Google), and I was shocked because I found the local newspaper was also influenced by Mr. Friedman's introduction and praised this school just three days after the news was released. The school suddenly became world famous. I suppose this key school in the Minghang District will have a longer waiting list next year, and the property around it will continuously go up in price, in spite of Xuequ Fang which is a policy that urges students to enter the nearest school. (Every applicant must bring Hukou or a rental contract to prove that the child is living in the property located in the school's catchment area.) This often results in ridiculously higher house prices, which indicates that such a successful school actually is rare in Shanghai. Friedman also mentions the schools that did so well in the PISA exams in 2009. The truth is that the majority of Chinese parents and teachers who are able to think critically and independently, laughed at such a hollow achievement because Chinese students are trained to do on-paper exams almost from kindergarten. And ironically, the Chinese government now wants to change the current one-size-fits-all system because of the lack of creative and innovative young adults who are needed for energising the economic growth machine.

The mark left on the back of Peng Hueng, aged six, a week after being beaten. (From the internet)The mark left on the back of Peng Hueng, aged six, a week after being beaten. (From the internet)However, even if those students from a very small portion of 'key' schools have achieved all the acknowledged high-performance standards set by an organisation that regards children as a 'baby workforce,' it will not change the real hidden secret - the tremendous health and sociological costs!

The truth is that Chinese teachers, students, and even parents are seriously suffering from the current highly standardised compulsory and no-choice education. While Mr. Friedman was applauding a deep involvement of parents in their children's learning, Chinese parents, in fact, feel kidnapped by it. Their own basic daily life is lost. Every afternoon, after school time, before dinner time, on a mother or father's mobile phone, a homework list is sent by the teachers who often are in charge of three major subjects: Chinese, math and English.  At the same time, children at the first grade start writing down the list of homework in a special diary that is a checklist for parents to sign off on. Through these tools, teachers pass their duties to parents because it then becomes the parents' job to ensure that their children complete the homework. Without a parent's signature, or just because  of a few mistakes in a notebook or on an exercise sheet, the child will be in serious trouble the following day. An 'irresponsible' parent is often asked to the teacher's office, and blamed in front of their children. It is not uncommon to hear about a mother being shouted at in front of a classroom and breaking down and crying because she is busily working day and night to provide the basic needs of her family. Moreover, teachers are allowed to use the most powerful psychologically hurtful weapon: that is to ostracise a 'rebellious' student (really just someone who doesn't fit the mould), thus forcing parents to see their children receive the ultimate kind of painful suffering until they agree to toe the line.

When Mr Friedman applauds 'a deep commitment to teacher training, peer-to-peer learning and constant professional development,' I am not sure if he ever questioned the real motivation of these teachers, but he shows that he does not know how the role of a teacher has changed in contemporary China when he appreciates our 'culture that [...] respects teachers.' Chinese intellectuals used to be an independent social class that only pursued the facts and the truth in a monarchical institution with a long history. Teachers, being respected, used to teach with their own understandings of the world.

They worked to maintain the independence of intellectuals. Unfortunately, today Chinese teachers have already lost these rights and their own voices. Yuan Teng Fei, a high school teacher who became well-known after he gave lectures about history on TV, was imprisoned because he taught his students his own critical understanding about Chinese history. A Chinese language teacher who works in a primary school expressed self-guilt privately in front of me because she was unable to carry out her assignment without using psychological force. A math teacher, who is also a vice principal of a primary school in the Yangpu District, admitted she should, but was unable to, slow down her teaching schedule to fit the real needs of her class of students that she had just taken over from her colleague because the competition with teachers in other math groups would result in the loss of her bonus and other rewards. A teaching schedule must strictly follow the regional curriculum and instructional procedure. Now teachers' payment is strictly related to their students' scores in the paper-based examinations and tests. This forces teachers to keep to the teaching schedule instead of paying attention to a student's learning pace and also generates tension between teachers and those lower performance students and their parents. Indeed, teachers have become agents to deliver the will and philosophy of the Party to students and their families, and ultimately to the entire society.
It is not a happy job. But, even so, to be teacher is still attractive to many college graduates while millions of new graduates are jobless, and a teacher's pension can be paid at the salary level, just like a civil servant's, thereby instituting another powerful, privileged class in our dictatorial social system. It is a really stable job if teacher keeps up the routine and makes sure that children do not to take any risks in school. 'It is just an ordinary job for survival, same as a cashier in supermarket!  I just deliver the content of the textbooks, I don't teach children anything else.' The spirit of being a teacher as an independent intellectual is so weak that the moral issues have become a major social problem in modern China.

While Mr. Friedman applauds 'China's 30 years of investment in [...] education,' I really doubt whether he ever took a close look at this 'investment' - what has been invested, and how much real contribution there has been to children's needs and growth that cannot be measured in our official statistical reports. E-learning and IT-supported learning were new and potentially large business opportunities around 2000, but only a few companies have made money from the market. That 'you need Guan Xi to get the government's money' was common sense to businessmen in this field. I have a friend who runs a big company that sells whiteboards to schools. His major job is to corrupt decision-makers at every level to ensure orders and payments. It is all tied into the GDP and the growth of the large companies. We have all this technology but no real change in teaching.

This is also why so many well-decorated and fully-equipped buildings have appeared in recent years in schools and universities in Shanghai and China. If Mr. Friedman and the educational authorities had some basic idea of what real teaching and learning are about, why would they only promote the way the system looks from the outside? Are they not aware that investment in buildings and teaching tools does not lead directly to the improvement of students' learning?

The communication obstacle is unshakable, particularly when people just want evidence to support their own policies regardless of  the wider picture. In China, we say, 'A tree leaf close to eye makes you blind.' We Chinese are too familiar with standardised testing-focused education, the reasons for it and the dangerous results of its tyranny on students.

Shanghai has no secrets, nor does China. Whoever is able to read the Chinese language and access the Chinese Extranet, can clearly find out about all of the fallout of the high-stakes, one-size-fits-all system and the human wreckage of standardisation. Anyone who can personally talk about education with Chinese principals, teachers, students and parents in Shanghai streets, can find the hidden secret of Shanghai.

Facts about the Shanghai secret:

  1. In 2013, less than 30% of Shanghai college graduates were able get jobs in Shanghai while the local GDP grew 7.5%.  In 2012, less than 40% of graduates in China got jobs while the GDP grew 7.8%. This suggests that there may be no link between college-level achievement and economic growth.
  2. The suicide rate among young students in China is the highest in the world and it is continuously rising. In Shanghai, 24.39% of students in primary and secondary schools admit they have thought about committing suicide, 15.23% considered various suicide methods, 5.85% seriously planned suicide and 1.71% committed suicide. (Reported in 2011 by the 39 Network, one of the biggest health networks in China.)
  3. The physical health of children and teenagers has been continuously deteriorating in the past 30 years. The proportion of near-sighted students in China is also the highest in the world. Mr. Yang Rengui, the deputy chief inspector of the Ministry of Education of China, admitted in 2006 that the anxious pursuit of performance and the lack of physical exercise time are major contributors to this situation.

If a 'successful' education system is based on shaping students as conformists and passive learners without any confidence in their own creativity, imagination or human potential, then the Chinese school system is, indeed, remarkably efficient. However, if the Americans want to emulate our model as a way of competing in the global marketplace, please beware. We Chinese know the real secret of our system that has been kept over 50 years, and it's not a pretty picture.


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