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Friedman: Shanghai's secret for better schools

  • Middle school students in Shanghai. Students in Shanghai outperformed students from 65 other countries on an international standardized test that measured math, science and reading competency. (RYAN PYLE / New York Times, 2010)

SHANGHAI

Whenever I visit China, I am struck by the sharply divergent predictions of its future one hears. Lately, a number of global investors have been “shorting” China, betting that someday soon its powerful economic engine will sputter, as the real estate boom here turns to a bust. Frankly, if I were shorting China today, it would not be because of the real estate bubble but because of the pollution bubble that is increasingly enveloping some of its biggest cities. Optimists take another view: that, buckle in, China is just getting started and that what we're now about to see is the payoff from China's 30 years of investment in infrastructure and education. I'm not a gambler, so I'll just watch this from the sidelines. But if you're looking for evidence as to why the optimistic bet isn't totally crazy, you might want to visit a Shanghai elementary school.

I've traveled here with Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and the leaders of the Teach for All programs modeled on Teach for America that are operating in 32 countries. We're visiting some of the highest- and lowest-performing schools in China to try to uncover The Secret — how is it that Shanghai's public secondary schools topped the world charts in the 2009 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) exams that measure the ability of 15-year-olds in 65 countries to apply what they've learned in math, science and reading.

After visiting Shanghai's Qiangwei Primary School, with 754 students — grades one through five — and 59 teachers, I think I found The Secret:

There is no secret.

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, an insistence by the school's leadership on the highest standards and a culture that prizes education and respects teachers.

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