Shanghai: An Example of Education Reform

The following can also be viewed at Shanghai_An Example of Education Reform

Subjects covered are:
Introduction, Some background, The Cultural Revolution: 1966 to 1976, Changes in education: Late 1970s through the 1980s, Changes in education: 1990 to the present day, The 21st century: Focus on higher education, Teachers and teaching, Major Reforms, Shanghai: a leader in reform, Ahead of the pack in universal education, Reforming examinations in Shanghai, Students – their rights and obligations, Curriculum reforms, Two further main reforms in 1998, Shanghai and decentralisation, Examination in Shanghai, Achievements and challenges in Shanghai’s education system,
The Shanghai Experience:
1) A plan for all children, 2) Tradition in perspective, 3) Necessary paradigm adjustments, 4) Optimising learning, 5) Engaging all facets of the student, 6) The raison d’être of decentralisation, 7) The place of examinations, 8) Perspective on accountability.
Final observations.

In many ways the Western world still looks up on China as a developing country and this is correct to a degree. However, in some areas such as education China is leading the world; and in particular Shanghai which, according to OECD PISA 2009 and 2012 assessments, has the highest achievement students of any country.

It is an indication of China’s resilience, application and effort that it has, within the time frame of little over two decades, reformed its education systems to the point that the Western nations would do well to copy and emulate.

This article describes how Shanghai is an example of what from an outsider’s viewpoint was drastic reform. Changes were introduced that not only enhanced respect for teachers but perhaps more importantly enabled students to apply knowledge to problems in a way not seen previously.

Teachers were given far greater freedom. This enabled them to create classroom situations where students moved away from the previous concentration on rote learning. In addition, there were big increases in teachers’ pay, thereby attracting talented people into the profession.

Students were able to gain a far deeper understanding of how to apply the knowledge they learned to solve problems. They achieved this to a very large extent by using their creative, artistic and imaginative capabilities. All these changes were underpinned by education administrators enacting measures that resulted in teachers having far greater choice in choosing curricula.

Also, and this occurred throughout China, local education authorities were given far more latitude in deciding examination content. One consequence was far greater flexibility in teaching practices including choice of lessons and curriculum. However, the Western world still possesses the prevailing but erroneous impression that Chinese students learn by rote, and that much in the schools is about memorising and cramming for examinations.

Some background
Anyone who studies Chinese history will realise that China has a long tradition of highly valuing education although the structures in the past are very different from those prevailing today. We can go back as far as 300 B.C.E. when the Civil Examination system was established. At that time potential candidates had to be familiar with the classics, basically the Four Books and Five Classics.

The Four Books are Chinese classic texts attributed in one way or another to Confucius. They illustrate the core value and belief systems of Confucianism. The Five Classics are five ancient Chinese books used in Confucianism. These books, or parts of them, were commented on, compiled, or edited by or attributed to Confucius himself.

In the Ming and Qing dynasties, they were the core of the official curriculum for taking the civil service examinations. Anyone who wished to apply for the very sought after posts had no alternative but to know such works literally by heart, hence the requirement for “rote learning.” The system, although very competitive, was regarded as a fair and efficient system for selecting officials. The examinations remained with some changes over many dynasties before their abolition in 1905.

Since 1905 there have been a considerable number of changes. Perhaps the main change was The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). With the benefit of hindsight the innovations introduced during this time are now regarded as disadvantageous for Chinese society.

Many regarded them as disastrous so they were followed by totally different policies in the 1980s and 1990s. It was during this time there was also a movement towards opening up higher education to make it accessible to the population at large.

The Cultural Revolution: 1966 to 1976
Introduced by Mao in 1966 and known initially as the Proletariat Cultural Revolution, later as The Cultural Revolution, the intended aim was to create a political movement to eliminate all bourgeois influences in society. However, the agenda was extreme and had as some of its objectives to destroy and remove all areas of what were regarded as bourgeois culture.

These were regarded as the bedrock of what was wrong in society. Removing bourgeois culture included moving anyone regarded as an intellectual and therefore including all teachers. Such people were removed to areas where they would have little influence or where they could be reprogrammed in proletariat ideology.

Subjects and areas such as music, drama, opera and novels were regarded as an integral part of bourgeoisie culture and any institutions that paid homage to such subjects were closed down. Obviously this included a considerable number of schools. Such schools were replaced with schools led by teams consisting of workers, peasants and soldiers. The curriculum was totally overhauled so that it reflected the essence of “class struggle.”

The same sort of thing happened to institutions of higher education. Admission was no longer related to examination results or academic merit and included the extreme step that only workers, peasants and soldiers were admitted. Faculty and anyone regarded as an intellectual were sent for reprogramming, many to remote rural areas.

The motivation for The Cultural Revolution can be viewed as a simplistic and naïve utopian ideal of egalitarianism. The State was king and all wealth was to be equally divided among its citizens. Another tenet was that each person produced or contributed an equal amount of wealth to and for the state regardless of their job, qualifications, ability and capability.

The consequences were disastrous resulting in total economic stagnation. Inevitably, the Cultural Revolution ended and China had to rebuild the entire education system in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Changes in education: Late 1970s through the 1980s
The end of the Cultural Revolution brought about unprecedented changes in China. Besides economic reforms, universities were allowed to double their intake. One crucial reform was in 1980 that allowed local non-government financing of schools, and which resulted in 1985 in the decentralisation of education.

A consequence of this was the aim of universal primary education including nine-year education as a national target. This was enacted in law in 1986 when China passed the Law of Compulsory Education, which required every child to complete nine years of formal schooling. This consisted of six years of primary school and three years of junior secondary school. The law was applied with determination and effort and within ten years China had achieved this goal.

Also in 1988, China moved away from uniform national textbooks to experiment with diversity in textbooks. This crucial step resulted in diverse interpretations of the centralised syllabi, and there were attempts, for example in Shanghai, to create new comprehensive syllabi.

Changes in education: 1990 to the present day
By 2009, 99.4% of children were enrolled at primary school level and 99% for junior secondary school; enrollment at senior secondary level was 79.2%. However, the 1985 reform, while establishing the framework for decentralised local school finance and governance, also examined regional disparities in the financing of schools.

The Revised Law of Compulsory Education, enacted in 2006, indicated the government’s determination to sustain universal basic education with equitable financing.

The 21st century: Focus on higher education
The main emphasis of the 1980s and 1990s had been to make education available for the entire population. This was followed by, in the first decade of the 21st century, with the aim of making higher education available to all who possessed the necessary qualifications for entrance.

Initially starting in 1998, China launched a spectacular expansion of higher education. This was a drastic change from previous models which had restricted higher education to a small percentage of the population. In 1999, all higher education institutions in China were mandated to increase their intake; by as much as 50% in some cases. Central government enforced this expansion for the years following and similar increases followed in 2000 of 25% and in 2001 of 22%.

Obviously there was a huge increase in intake and the higher education student population grew from less than 6 million in 1998 to 29.8 million in 2009. Gross enrollment ratios in higher education in China have climbed from barely 2% in 1990 to about 16% in 2005. There were about 31 million students in enrolled in higher education institutions in 2010, an increase of 35% within a five year period.

The percentage enrolment rate at 24.2% is still low compared with Western nations but it is continually rapidly increasing. Nevertheless in 2011 with over 31 million enrolled China had the largest number of higher education students in the world, much higher than the USA (18 million+), which was the second largest.

One consequence of this rapid expansion of higher education was a desire amongst the population at large for their children to enter higher education. This resulted in substantial increased enrollment in senior secondary schools.

Teachers and teaching
We have already seen that during the Cultural Revolution, many young people with some education were branded intellectuals and sent to rural villages. Although they lacked training and were paid pittances many became teachers.

In 2000 there was a national movement to remove under-qualified teachers. However, they were popular in the rural areas where they were called minban teachers. There was an attempt to retrain these teachers but a considerable number of such teachers, once retrained, returned to the cities where their pay and conditions were usually far superior to those in rural areas. Because of the present emphasis on education, respect for teachers has dramatically increased and complementary to this has been vastly improved conditions including their salaries.

Although teachers were expected to teach based on a syllabus they have the freedom and are encouraged to create detailed lesson plans. Not only does the lesson plan act as a guide for the teacher during the lesson, but is also looked on and examined as documentation of the teacher’s professional performance.

The following was established to create the most efficient administrative structure. A group or committee is set up with in a district to administer and be responsible for all matters relating to the curriculum. It is often called a “teaching-study group” administered by a “teaching-study office.”

All such teaching-study offices report to and are supervised by the Basic Education Department II. This department is part of the central government’s Ministry of Education and the vast majority of administrators involved with the Basic Education Department II were previously teachers or principals.

The Basic Education Department II has a crucial role to play and it is responsible for all matters relating to a considerable number of areas in education. For example, it is responsible for school management for the whole of China. This includes such important areas as curriculum development and textbook production.

With consultation and cooperation not only are teachers given a thorough and professional training, the basis for assessing and evaluating their professional competence is observed through their teaching. The teachers can be observed and assessed for a whole number of reasons.

For example, the principal of their school may observe for monitoring or assessment. They may be observed by senior teachers with the objective of mentoring more inexperienced teachers. If they are experienced they may be observed by new teachers so the new teachers can see how an experienced teacher would handle particular lesson or content. If new curriculum is introduced they may be observed for evaluation of the new curriculum.

Experienced teachers are often requested, for an assortment of reasons, to teach demonstration lessons to other teachers, curriculum experts and other educationalists. Experienced teachers are viewed professionally as valued and admired members not only of the school but also of the community.

Major Reforms
Since the early 1980s reform has been continuous. Shanghai has been one of the centres of such reforms. Important dates include 1985 when finance and administration were decentralised and 1988, when China moved away from the previous inflexible system that all schools should be using the same textbooks. This move resulted in districts or areas being able to choose their own textbooks.

The expansion in higher education initially started in 1998 has resulted in completely new expectations for the population at large. This was accompanied by and complementary to the major redesign of examinations that were needed for entrance.

All these initiatives were accompanied by the need to get rid of financial disparities and inequalities. New structures of finance have resulted in a far more equitable and fair dispersal of financial resources.

The movement for reform continues and one of the important latest initiatives is a major plan for innovation and efficient use of resources up to 2020. A crucial component for such reforms, and very much refreshing for someone like myself who had fought a battle with administrators in UK and USA for many decades, is the emphasis on the individual needs of children.

Added to this is how diversity is viewed as crucial if educators are to optimise childrens’ wellbeing and learning. One can see why Shanghai now possesses the highest achieving students in the world.

Another far reaching innovation has been the inclusion of music and art as integral areas of the curriculum. Previously, they had been excluded as they were not part of the public examinations. As innovations occurred, and this occurred at a national level, education was re-orientated towards the idea that examinations were not the most efficient way not only of assessing a student’s ability but also of their worth to society.

It is going to take time but there is now the general belief that emphasis on examinations may well damage a student’s development. A totally different basis for realising and appreciating an individual’s worth to society is continually evolving. Accompanying this is how to examine and assess this worth.

The result is that Chinese reformers are of the mindset that education is dynamic and that they need to be open to change ideas that dictate policy if it can be shown that something better or more efficient exists.

It is going to take time but committed reformers continue to make great efforts to reform the curriculum at the national level; and Shanghai is one of the areas which lead such reform.

The Ministry of Education produced a major document in 2001 and recommended the following:

  • To move away from pure knowledge transmission towards fostering learning attitudes and values.
  • To move away from discipline-based knowledge, towards more comprehensive and balanced learning experiences.
  • To move away from pure “bookish” knowledge and to improve relevance and interest in the content of a curriculum.
  • To move away from repetitive and mechanistic rote learning towards increased student participation, real-life experience, capacity in communications and teamwork, and ability to acquire new knowledge and to analyse and solve problems.
  • To de-emphasise the screening and selective functions of assessments and instead to emphasise their formative and constructive functions.
  • To move away from centralisation, so as to leave room for adaptation to local relevance and local needs. Concrete changes include dilution of the disciplined structure of “subjects” so as to re-organise content according to life-relevance and progression in learning; the introduction of new integrated contents at the cross-over between natural sciences and humanities; the creation of elective arts modules as a compulsory part of the curriculum; to change examination formats from fact regurgitation to analyses and solutions for stated problems; and so forth.

There has been a change in paradigm as far as the thinking and policies of administrators is concerned; from a rigid and unsuccessful system to one of the most flexible and insightful systems in the world. Previously the focus was either on educating a small minority chosen by inflexible examination system followed by a system whereby the crucial people in the education, namely the teachers, were relegated as needing reprogramming.

Nowadays, the reforms strongly emphasise that each child possesses individual needs. Although there may well exist universal needs relating to phases and stages of development, each child is different and part of the craft of the teacher is to understand those individual needs and relate content and methodology to them.

The Chinese use the term constructive learning for such purposes. The view that constructive learning should be the basis for teaching is now accepted by many administrators in China. Therefore, we see that many who are creating and writing curriculum include constructive learning, in lesser or greater part, as a determinant of design.

However, this is still an area of discussion and even controversy, as some interpret that the very meaning of constructive learning should be the empirical experience of the learner and this should be paramount in the teaching process.

Whatever degree of input is agreed on, the direction that teaching and learning should revolve around a child-centred approach is now well established as an integral determinant of curriculum design and reform.

Shanghai: a leader in reform
Shanghai is the country’s most cosmopolitan city. It is the largest city in China, with a population of 20.7 million, of whom 13.8 million are permanent residents, and 5.4 million are temporary. In 2009, Shanghai’s GDP was US$11,563 per capita.

If we examine Shanghai’s its population and land account as a percentage of Chinas’ we see that Shanghai has only 1% of China’s population and only 0.06% of land. However, it contributes one-eighth of China’s income. In 2009, the contribution of the service sector to economic growth in Shanghai was around 60%, the highest in mainland China.

Ahead of the pack in universal education
In previous days tradition dominated education decision and policy making. Although many cultural traditions still have an input, the changes that Shanghai administrators introduced have resulted in a totally different structure of education. Shanghai was among the first cities to achieve universal primary and junior secondary education and was also among the first to achieve almost universal senior secondary education. Enrolment at pre-school, primary and secondary levels was 98%, 99.9%, and 97% respectively.

It is also clear that the policy of encouraging students to attend Shanghai’s higher institutions of education has been successful with over 80% entering some form of higher education compared to the national figure of 24%. One extrapolation indicates that all who would like to attend higher education are able to do so. Even so many administrators are still not satisfied and aim to have an even greater percentage entering higher education institutions in the future.

Shanghai is also home to quite a few experimental programmes that are seen as pioneers in developing quality education. Such programmes are opposed to learning by rote and subsequent assessment based on short term memory recall in examinations. Such policies have also resulted in many families moving to Shanghai so that their children can receive an education there. Because of such movements Shanghai has become one of the main, if not the main, “education hubs” in China.

Reforming examinations in Shanghai
In 1985, Shanghai was allowed to organise the higher education entrance examination for its universities and other higher education institutions. Following this, the spirit and practice of reform has continued. One of the main areas of reform has been how should students be assessed.

Many practices accepted as a main assessment and evaluation tool in other countries has been discarded. Since then, a great deal of effort has gone into reforming assessments and examinations. For example, it was decided that multiple-choice questions were not an efficient way to assess students and they were phased out. Quite different modes of evaluation were introduced. For example, evaluation tools were introduced that crossed traditional subject areas. Obviously, teaching practices changed to include inter-disciplinary subject areas.

It was also agreed and implemented that it was important that students should know how to apply their knowledge to real-life problems.

The main thrust of OECD PISA evaluations is to evaluate how well students apply their knowledge to problems. It is an indication of Shanghai’s success that in the 2009 PISA evaluations Shanghai students achieved the highest marks in all three categories (556 in reading, 600 in mathematics and 575 in science) easily outperforming the students of all other countries.

Students – their rights and obligations
Parents have become so engrossed with their childrens schooling that they regard homework as essential for their childrens success. Not only this, but parents devote a considerable amount of their time and effort to make sure their offspring study every evening. It is perhaps unusual to find in Western nations a situation where education administrators are concerned that students are spending too much time involved in homework or after school study!

The consequence of such concern is that in many places, and Shanghai was one of the first, administrators and teachers have placed limits on the amount of work and hours that students are expected to complete.

Other areas of interest are physical exercise, eye exercises (so that eyes are kept in healthy condition), a multitude of after school programmes that enhance the creative, artistic and imaginative facets of students’ personalities and a variety of what could be termed social responsibilities.

Many of these programmes are mandatory. For example, in Shanghai every student should participate in at least one hour’s physical education each day. To keep eyes healthy, students are encouraged to practice eye exercises. Some of these exercises are where student massage essential acupuncture points in order to prevent eyesight deterioration.

Extracurricular activities are many and varied but many schools charge for such activities. Subjects offered include music, fine arts, sports, and all kinds of subjects not offered during school hours. The most popular are piano, flute, ballet, Chinese calligraphy and Chinese painting.

Students are also required to engage in what are termed social responsibilities. For example, and in many cases this will also involve honing leadership skills, being engaged in keeping clean their classroom, school and grounds. In many instances they will also be assigned supervised responsibilities outside the school. They might well visit citizens who are deprived in one way or another; they might help those living in poor rural areas; they might be involved with others who have handicaps of one sort or another; or visiting the elderly.

The cumulative effect is that students are kept busy learning and with worthwhile activities. The authorities keep a close eye on such situations in that they realise that students can easily be overwhelmed. Shanghai is a leader in this area and plan the workload of students carefully even to the point of influencing schools to refrain from holding classes during evenings and weekends!

The task of optimising students’ wellbeing and learning is an ongoing process and Shanghai administrators are well aware of this. They are also of the opinion that some areas have still not been dealt with adequately. For example, students do not have enough involvement or encounters with nature.

There is also the balance between the knowledge to be learned and the drawing out of innate abilities and capabilities that each child possesses. However, in many areas, as attested to by the PISA results, Shanghai students are proving that the policies being implemented are enhancing their achievement and wellbeing.

Curriculum reforms
Curriculum reform is often the driver and cornerstone for a variety of policies that eventually are born from that particular parent. For whatever reasons, Shanghai is often the front-runner and initiates reforms that are eventually implemented in other parts of China.

For example, Shanghai has introduced two major curriculum reforms. The first was introduced in 1988 although the process was initiated in 1985 when Shanghai received permission for its students to move away from the existing national centralised examination system. Up until that point students in Shanghai, as in the rest of China, had to sit what can be regarded as a complex examination system that was national in scope and application.

This major innovation meant that by having the freedom to create and apply its own examination Shanghai was now able to formulate its own curricula obviously based on such an examination. Suddenly, students in Shanghai were able to study in a totally different format than what existed previously.

For example, one very big change of the 1988 reform was to allow students to choose courses of study based on their own personal interest. To facilitate this and to create a structure where this and other innovations could occur, the curriculum was dived into three areas.

The division was simple and courses were either compulsory, electives or extracurricular. To support this structure appropriate textbooks and other teaching material were provided although these were phased in.

Schools were encouraged to develop their own curricula specific to their individual conditions. The new curriculum contained three components. First, there were the compulsory subject areas that all students had to take; this was known as “the basic curriculum.”

Second, an area of elective courses whose main aim was to enable students to enrich their education and fulfil personal goals based on what each student possessed in the way of ability and capability; this was known as “the enriched curriculum.”

Third, an area mainly implemented through extra-curricular activities that would enable students to research a subject or subject areas based on their interest and application; this was known as “the inquiry-based curriculum.” Thus students, for the first time, had opportunities to explore areas determined by personal interest.

Two further main reforms in 1998
In 1998, a further two main reforms occurred. First, administrators decided that the then current emphasis on examinations was an anachronism when viewed in the context of how a modern society should educate its students.

Second, administrators initiated that integration in a number of subject areas should occur. For example, and where appropriate, the teaching of science could be integrated with the humanities. In addition, macro-integration should also occur. An example of this would be the integration of say part of the national curriculum with a school-based curriculum.

No longer were students viewed as merely vehicles of knowledge but that they should also participate in active inquiry. The aim was to transform students from passive receivers of knowledge to active participants in learning. In order for this to occur each student was regarded as someone who could reach his or her potential by expressing and improving his or her capacity for creativity and self-development.

Obviously, if a student has the freedom to choose a research topic based on his or her experiences, he or she is far more likely to be motivated to optimise his or her input into the project.

Through independent learning and exploration, students, although supervised, would learn to learn to think creatively and critically and to express in an appropriate format his or her individual preferences for learning.

To their downfall, Western nations still emphasise in their education the accumulation of knowledge, facts and information. China is engaged in quite different activities with a student-orientated approach to learning. The emphasis is on providing a structure within which each student can fulfil his or her potential. To achieve this end content and methodology revolve around optimising learning rather than teaching.

The main challenge is to provide a structured environment whereby each student can reach their optimum learning experience. In order to create such an environment administrators made a thorough and painstaking examination of the best way to provide a curriculum which facilitated such learning.

Such an examination resulted in a total overhaul of the curriculum and since 2008 a new curriculum has been implemented throughout the city. The other side of the coin regarding curriculum development is the people who have to teach it. We have already described how teachers’ professional status was enhanced by a number of measures.

The overhaul of curriculum is supported by enhancing the professional status of teachers and their professional development. Today, all primary school teachers now must possess a sub-degree diploma, and in secondary schools degrees; many teachers now also possess a master’s degrees.

Shanghai was again an innovator in this area. It was the first local authority in China to introduce continuous professional development (CPD) for teachers. It is now mandated that every teacher in Shanghai is expected to engage in 240 hours of professional development within five years.

Other measures were also introduced so that interested parties could have an input. The idea was that any good and proven practice should be shared. One important area was curriculum design, development and implementation. To facilitate access to such areas, a web-based platform was made available in 2008 to teachers. Other areas made available were sample lessons, research papers, success stories and a variety of other areas if they were of interest to teachers, parents and other educators.

As we have said education is dynamic with those involved in setting goals with administrators being a key component of change. The prevailing mindset was that it can always be improved. Such was and is the case with China and in 2009 new proposals were discussed. The proposals were drawn up under “National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020).”

It set down very ambitious objectives. For example, education expenditure was to be increased to 4% of GDP and a projected budget of US$200 billion was finalised. From the outset it was agreed that a complete overhaul of the system was needed right from pre-school, elementary, through high school to all areas of higher education including universities and vocational; and also including areas such as minority and special education.

Chinese administrators realised from the outset that the challenge was to compete in a global economy and that its children, and the way they were educated, should be the main priority. To facilitate this, the way education is administered across all educational levels would need to be examined and evaluated.

As far as Shanghai administrators were concerned, they welcomed submissions and it was agreed there should be extensive public consultation Shanghai recommended that the learning structure should, whenever and wherever possible, be even more individualised.

With that in mind it recommended that curricula should be school-based with a credit system that students would earn depending on individual effort, ability and capability.

Teacher assessment and evaluation previously concentrated on the teacher. This continued but now such assessment also included the time given to student participation and how well student activities are organised.

Previously, we referred to the major change that occurred in 1985 when Shanghai was allowed to introduce an independent higher education entrance examination. Previous to this, students in Shanghai who wished to enter higher education and, as in the rest of China, had to take the nationally prescribed examination.

Shanghai and decentralisation
Shanghai was the frontrunner, was successful in what was, in essence, decentralisation of a nationally established procedure. The result of such decentralisation and complimentary to it, was the establishment of localised curriculum. This was a major and important step for students in Shanghai. Major efforts were needed many of which have been described above but by 2001 the following structure was established.

The entrance examination contained three compulsory or core subjects. These were Chinese language, English language and mathematics. In addition, another subject or subjects were taken depending on what higher education institution the student wished to apply for. This formula became known as “3+X” “X” being the additional subject or subjects.

Weighting would automatically be applied in such a formula. For example, if a student wished to take say science or technology, the three core subjects (the “3” in the “3+X” formula) could make up 40% while the science or technology subjects 60% (the “X” in the “3+X” formula). There was also flexibility in the format of the “X” component. It could take the form of a written or oral examination or even a practical skills examination.

It was also decided that the institution which the student wanted to apply for would decide on the weighting of the three core subjects and the “X” component. For example, Shanghai University for Science and Technology decided that the three core subjects make up 40% of the candidate’s overall scores while the “X” component would contribute 60%.

Examinations in Shanghai
The policy that individual institutions should set their own entrance examinations was introduced and accepted and it is now common practice. In less than seven years a considerable number of higher education institutions in Shanghai now set their own entry requirements.

For example, in 2006, Fudan University, Shanghai Jiaotong University and six vocational higher education institutions set their own admission requirements and organised their own entrance examinations based on these requirements. The trend was set and now most higher education institutions in Shanghai set their own entrance examinations.

It is now generally accepted in China that the single examination system is an anachronism in today’s world. Added to the multi-entrance examination approach is the movement to make selection even more student orientated. For example, many institutions in Shanghai now allow admissions based on school recommendations.

Obviously, there has to exist a very high degree of integrity for this to work. However, the movement to orientate entry qualifications to concentrate on what the student can contribute to society has resulted in a far more flexible and open system. In this context the movement is unstoppable.

Another area related in the attempt to optimise each student’s wellbeing and learning is where Shanghai administrators have positively discriminated in favour of strengthening local education. One example is where physical refurbishment and renovation of school sites and facilities occurred.

An indication of such commitment to major reform is shown by the fact that when a major programme was initiated in 1999 nearly three-quarters of all the schools in Shanghai, numbering one thousand six hundred schools, were “re-organised” where this was possible; or where this was not practical they were closed. Another programme of major reform was initiated in 2002 when around one-third of all junior secondary schools in Shanghai were similarly “re-organised.”

It was also found that per-capita student expenditure was far lower in rural schools. To compensate, Shanghai introduced a “financial transfer payment” whereby such schools received additional funding. The basis for this was to set a minimum standard for per-student public expenditure. Whereby previously, per-student expenditure in rural areas was only 50% to 60% of that in the city such “financial transfer payments” increased rural expenditure per-student not only to the same level of per-student expenditure that existed in the city but in the majority of cases increased such expenditure to the point that it exceeded those of city schools.

Between 2004 and 2008, over US$500 million was transferred by way of “financial transfer payments” to rural schools. Such schools either renovated and refurbished their buildings and facilities or built new ones. Teacher salaries were increased thus resulting in teachers receiving and equal or even great salary than their city partners. One consequence was that the movement of teachers moving to the city from rural areas was reversed.

This movement was taken a stage further when Shanghai authorities transferred a number of teachers from city to rural schools together with their principals. In addition and where appropriate, teachers and principals in rural schools were given the experience to work with experienced teachers and principals in city schools. The idea was that such teachers and principals would enhance their particular areas of expertise. Meanwhile, young and middle-aged principals and teachers from rural schools were transferred to urban schools for enrichment and experience. Once enrichment had occurred they returned to their rural schools.

Another approach was to expand the strategy just described. For example, in 2005 ninety-one city schools in nine urban areas were matched and paired with ninety-one rural schools and a formal three year agreement was entered into by both.

The agreement covered such areas as curricula and teaching lessons and materials and these were made available to teachers in the rural schools. The venture proved worthwhile and another three year agreement was entered into in 2009.

The emphasis was on making available to schools that could be improved, a variety of what could be termed assistance programmes and this was expanded. For example, a number of partnerships were entered into whereby the successful city school would administer the school that needed improvement.

It could be where an experienced administrator from the city school would co-administer the weaker school or where experienced teachers from the city school would be sent to assist teachers in the weaker school so that teaching and curricula could both be improved.

For example, in 2007, Shanghai administrators arranged for ten successful city schools in downtown Shanghai to enter an agreement lasting two years to administer twenty rural schools. Once again, experienced teachers and administrators were required to attend the schools that needed improvement.

Another clear example where such partnerships exist is the “consortium of schools model”. This is where both successful and schools that could improve are assembled into a group or consortium with a successful school as leader.

One “consortium of schools model” that has gained prominence is The Qibao Education Group. Qibao Ancient Town is about 15km south of central Shanghai, was built over one thousand years ago, and is one of the oldest and most famous towns in Shanghai. Its secondary school, established in 1947 sends a very high percentage of its students to university. Because of its success, especially in the areas of science, technology, music and art, it became a model school worthy of emulation. Shanghai administrators decided that Qibao Secondary School should act formally as a model school.

Commencing in 2005, The Qibao Education Group was formed consisting of the model school (Qibao Secondary School) and six other schools that needed improvement. The consortium proved successful and all the schools improved their performance.

Achievements and challenges in Shanghai’s education system
One of the main gauges of the success of such measures is indicated by the success of Shanghai students in the OECD PISA evaluations. As described above, Shanghai students achieved, in 2009, the highest scores of any students in all three categories of science, math and reading.

This is the first time since the three year evaluations commenced in 2000 that one territory/country has achieved the top scores in all three categories.

As we know PISA evaluations test how well students apply their knowledge to real life problems and it is obvious that Shanghai students are more successful doing this than students of any other country. Crucial to this success was the integrated multi-curricula approach encouraged by Shanghai administrators as well as the emphasis to allow students to choose subject areas that interested them and to explore such areas.

All very different from the existing systems prevailing in Western nations that still emphasise short-term memory recall with examinations based on the regurgitation of factual material rather than recognising the creative abilities of their students and creating evaluation tools for measuring these facets of a student.

Evidence that the reforms were successful now exists. It needs to be accepted that students that are exposed to a much broader knowledge base, and were trained to integrate their knowledge and tackle real-life problems, will achieve much higher test scores than students where this does not occur.

Anyone with an interest in education needs to accept that if students are encouraged to identify questions of interest to them, and to make open-ended explorations on this basis, the result will be higher achievement levels.

Anyone who examines what occurred in might we might call traditional Chinese society will realise the enormous changes that China, and in particular Shanghai, administrators, have initiated.

Whether Western nations are capable of introducing such policies remains to be seen but up to the present they are retaining a system where students learn subjects by heart and regurgitate such knowledge in examinations even though their students continually perform more poorly in each PISA evaluation.

The Shanghai Experience
China has introduced a considerable number of innovations during the last two decades and the system that exists today is completely different to the previous one. Shanghai was part of such national reforms but because it was also an autonomous region was able, in addition, to also initiate its own reforms.

Shanghai administrators were wise and insightful to realise that they should listen to anyone who had an interest in and who had a passion for the way children were educated. Many of its reforms were initially started from the grassroots.

The above has described how these reforms were introduced and implemented. The task is to now describe from a pedagogical viewpoint, the underlying raison d’être for these reforms. This raison d’être is described under the following headings: 1) A plan for all children, 2) Tradition in perspective, 3) Necessary paradigm adjustments, 4) Optimising learning, 5) Engaging all facets of the student, 6) The raison d’être of decentralisation, 7) The place of examinations, 8) Perspective on accountability.

1) A plan for all children
Who knows the children best only second to their parents and other close relatives? It is, of course, the teachers. Shanghai administrators realised that success can only be achieved if its teachers are and were empowered. One will find throughout its reforms the empowering of teachers.

In 2010 Chinese education administrators produced “National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020).” As the title indicates this blueprint laid the foundation of what was to occur in education in China between 2010 and 2020 but also beyond.

An indication of the thoroughness of the administrators was that they held or oversaw twenty-three thousand seminars or open meetings. They received over two million submissions. The final report took more than eighteen months to produce and contained over five million words.

The importance of education in China is shown by the fact that the then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao chaired the final committees entrusted to produce the final document. This document then needed the endorsement and authorisation of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and eventually the Politbureau.

Obviously, the input, authorisation and endorsement of such people and committees indicated the crucial importance that the top officials placed on education. It also guaranteed that the measures recommended by the education administrators would be implemented without difficulty or delay.

2) Tradition in perspective
We have described in some detail that past traditions dictated that emphasis in Shanghai, as in the rest of China, was based on rote learning and taking examinations based on the fact of how well its students could regurgitate the knowledge learned.

It was a step of considerable magnitude to reform a system where rote learning and examinations were the accepted format. The reforms included such drastic steps as taking the then unprecedented step in China’s history of moving from a system in which education was based on choosing an elitist structure to one where every student’s wellbeing and learning should be optimised.

The emphasis moved from teaching to learning, to encouraging every student to be creative knowing that the assessment and evaluation of his or her ability would be based on innate ability and capability rather than short-term memory recall.

3) Necessary paradigm adjustments
In the context of the nature of such reform it was obvious that one of the consequences of such measures would involve a major paradigm shift. The reforms (although the very use of the term should be questioned) that have occurred in Western nations in the last few decades has nearly always meant in the politicisation of the education system.

The vast majority of politicians have no experience of teaching children or the best way to optimise their wellbeing and learning. The success or failure of the policies such politicians implemented is clearly indicated by the relative decline in test scores of students in Western nations.

Reform should result in much more than examining perceived shortcomings in the system and producing remedies than only make an already bad situation, worse. It needs to involve those who have the greatest input of influencing children, namely teachers, in whatever changes are needed.

In that perspective, administrators (and if involved, politicians) need to fully appreciate that this is more than improving education however important that is; and obviously it is crucial. It also means accepting that those in power need to make a paradigm shift of considerable magnitude. Again, the experiences of such countries as the USA and UK clearly indicate that their politicians totally failed in this regard.

Society is changing at a rate never experienced or seen previously. Any society needs to change rapidly if it is to be successful in the modern world. Keeping and retaining outdated and outmoded systems can only bring decline as attested to if one views the PISA results.

Successful paradigm shifts have occurred in China, including Hong Kong, and also in other south-eastern Asian nations such as South Korea and Singapore. These countries appreciated that major overhauls needed to occur and that those in education needed to be involved.

Where they were not involved, and again the USA and UK are clear examples, one can only expect their students to perform badly in international league tables.

4) Optimising learning
What is the core business of education? It should be obvious, but unfortunately to many administrators particularly in Western nations it is not. It is not about teaching; it is about learning. Such Western nations, again taking the UK and USA as examples, emphasise accountability. They avoid, for whatever reasons, examining the causes, environments and processes of student learning.

Sadly, Western politicians show an excess of hubris in believing that the changes they introduce will result in benefits to society and in particular to economic activity. History is a harsh judge and will show that the very measures intended to bring about improvement and in particular better test scores had the opposite effect. China, and in particular Shanghai, is to be congratulated that they have taken, when compared with Western nations, a totally different viewpoint as regards the learning process.

How does one optimise learning? Certainly one needs to give teachers the freedom to practice their craft effectively and efficiently. Added to this must be the realisation that children are not miniature adults.

Their mindset is different and needs content and methodology that takes this into account. The brain is meant to develop in a certain way and present research indicates that if balanced and harmonious hemispheric development is to occur, the creative, artistic and imaginative facets of a child’s personality need expression through various formats. One crucial element here is the manner in which a child is taught and obviously teachers have the responsibility for seeing that each child is helped to optimise his or her learning.

The change in China from a highly centralised system to a decentralised one that occurred within the space of two decades indicates that Chinese and Shanghai administrators possessed the insight, vision and sensitivity to introduce the changes that were necessary. The 2009 PISA evaluations showing that Shanghai students are now the highest achieving students worldwide indicates the success of such policies.

5) Engaging all facets of the student
Shanghai administrators realised that the human condition is complex and many complicated factors have to be considered in order to optimise students’ wellbeing and learning. The human condition consists of innumerable facets each of which needs nurturing if optimisation is to occur.

Obvious areas are intellectual and physical. Equally obvious but often ignored is the affective, social and cultural. The development of the spiritual is usually not even accepted or examined.

Shanghai administrators and educators appreciated if students are to achieve optimisation as far as their wellbeing and learning is concerned, every facet of each child would need to be nurtured. One efficient way of achieving this was to make education child-centred with decisions to be made at a local level. This is an ongoing process and something of the way this is achieved will be described later

6) The raison d’être of decentralisation
Shanghai or to be more accurate China decided that decentralisation of the education system was crucial in order to provide teachers with the structure to practice their craft. Striking a balance between central and local control can be complicated but in most countries politicians are unwilling to give up power and so centralisation continues unabated.

Shanghai in particular, and China in general, have proved exceptions to this rule and the success of its students indicate what can happen when governments and administrations choose this option. For example, Shanghai is divided administratively into city districts. Shanghai has established a structure whereby within each district schools are independent. The task of administrators is to coordinate administration so that financial parity exists.

As described previously this sometimes exists of positive discrimination financially or in other areas. Thus Shanghai administrators retain power as a policy-making and co-ordinating authority but micro-education decisions are left at a local level to schools and teachers in each school.

7) The place of examinations
Previously in China, public examination were seen and accepted as the sole means of measuring a student’s worth to society. The policy makers and curriculum reformers appreciated that changing such attitudes would need time. However, they were clear that this system was an anachronism in the modern world and that their students needed a far more flexible system that indicated other facets of their learning experience.

Administrators decided that learning outcomes could still, in part, be measured by examinations but that added to this would be a number of other ways that would more accurately measure a student’s ability and capability. These could take a variety of forms but a common thread was that they were student-orientated.

For example, school-based assessment is now common. These could include student portfolios and a variety of self-assessment tools. It has even come to the point where some administrators want entry requirements to a higher education institution decided on the school’s assessment of a student.

However, administrators were also influenced by the fact that Shanghai school-leavers were the highest achieving students in all three categories of the 2009 PISA’s evaluation. The PISA evaluations were and are based on examinations taken by students who are in their last year at school so the success of Shanghai students taking the PISA examinations was also taken into account.

It should be emphasised that this is an ongoing process and a considerable number of opportunities exist for anyone who has an interest to make submissions regarding the best ways to assess not just the knowledge of students, or even how they apply that knowledge to problems, but the intrinsic worth of students to society. This is not just evaluating the individual worth of a student but also how that individual worth can contribute to the greater good.

8) Perspective on accountability
Accountability has become the ubiquitous measuring rod for all that is happening in education in Western nations. Unfortunately for those nations the ways for measuring such accountability has brought about exactly the opposite to what was intended.

Shanghai accepted the fact that while performance indicators and appraisal mechanisms were important it was necessary to accept that teachers were the key element in the learning process and that empathy, sensitivity and appreciation of their efforts were necessary ingredients in accounting procedures. In addition, parents, through a variety of inputs, also played a crucial role in their childrens’ education.

Shanghai introduced many changes and reforms but created structures so that parents could have such inputs and could work with teachers and schools to optimise their childrens’ wellbeing and learning. Administrators were fully aware and accepted that principals and teachers have to continually balance their responsibility to children, to the school, to administrators and also to themselves.

Shanghai administrators were sensitive that teachers facing a number of responsibilities should have an input into how they would be assessed. Therefore, accountability took many forms but the preparation of such accountability began in their teacher training programmes and continued in their school and also in their professional development. Thus teachers received continual information as to how and why they would be assessed and evaluated.

Unlike many Western nations where accountability is measured and assessed by an outside body, accountability in Shanghai is built into the system. Accountability of teachers in Shanghai is probably at least as thorough as anywhere else.

The crucial difference is that it is inbuilt into the system as an essential part of teachers’ professionalism. It is not there to pronounce judgement but to assist teachers to become better teachers. Again, the focus is on optimising processes that fundamentally are cooperative not confrontational in nature. Accountability should be an integral part of the teaching and learning process. Shanghai has succeeded in achieving this.

Final observations
In the last decade, China’s growth has far exceeded anything Western nations could aspire to. There is still a huge variety of economic situations existing in China from examples of preindustrial agricultural society to some of the most advanced and sophisticated industrial production and processes in the world.

Taking Shanghai as our example, the changes and reforms in education were introduced in a careful, sensitive yet thorough manner. It is important to acknowledge that administrators appreciated that they were dealing with the most important determinant of the future in any society and that is their children.

The correlation between education and economic success is high. Introducing the right reforms will eventually produce greater economic output. More importantly, if the right structures are in place children will grow into happy and productive adults and nothing is more important than this.

Administrators in Shanghai fully realised this and as economic performance increased, additional financial resources were available to implement further reforms.

Obviously, cultural heritage has played an important role in determining what should occur but such heritage was constantly modernised but in a sensitive and thoughtful manner. The success of Shanghai students is an indicator that their administrators are on the right track.

Western nations, a number of which are in steep decline, would do well to examine the Shanghai model and learn from it. Having dealt with administrators and politicians in UK and USA I am not hopeful that the vision, insight and sensitivity that needs to exist to bring about the changes that are desperately needed exists. If this analysis is correct the consequence will be the continual decline of such nations.