Posted on October 12, 2011

How China Is Winning the School Race

Yojana Sharma, BBC, October 11, 2011

China’s education performance–at least in cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong–seems to be as spectacular as the country’s breakneck economic expansion, outperforming many more advanced countries.

But what is behind this success?

Eyebrows were raised when the results of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s international maths, science and reading tests–the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests–were published.

Shanghai, taking part for the first time, came top in all three subjects.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong which was performing well in the last decade of British rule, has gone from good to great. In this global ranking, it came fourth in reading, second in maths and third in science.

These two Chinese cities–there was no national ranking for China–had outstripped leading education systems around the world.

The results for Beijing, not yet released, are not quite as spectacular. “But they are still high,” says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s head of education statistics and indicators.

Cheng Kai-Ming, Professor of Education at Hong Kong University, and closely involved in the Hong Kong and Shanghai tests, puts the results down to “a devotion to education not shared by some other cultures”.

Competitive exams

More than 80% of Shanghai’s older secondary students attend after-school tutoring. They may spend another three to four hours each day on homework under close parental supervision.

Such diligence also reflects the ferociously competitive university entrance examinations.

“Not all Chinese parents are ‘tiger mothers’,” insists Prof Cheng. “But certainly they are devoted to their children’s education.”

Certainly both these open and outward-looking cities set great store by education, willing to adopt the best educational practices from around the world to ensure success. In Hong Kong, education accounts for more than one-fifth of entire government spending every year.

“Shanghai and Hong Kong are small education systems, virtually city states, with a concentration of ideas, manpower and resources for education,” says Prof Cheng.

The innovation in these cities is not shared by other parts of China–not even Beijing, he says.

Under the banner “First class city, first class education”, Shanghai set about systematically re-equipping classrooms, upgrading schools and revamping the curriculum in the last decade.

It got rid of the “key schools” system which concentrated resources only on top students and elite schools. Instead staff were trained in more interactive teaching methods and computers were brought in.

Showcase schools

The city’s schools are now a showcase for the country. About 80% of Shanghai school leavers go to university compared to an overall average of 24% in China.

Meanwhile, dynamic Hong Kong was forced into educational improvements as its industries moved to cheaper mainland Chinese areas in the 1990s. Its survival as a service and management hub for China depended on upgrading knowledge and skills.

In the last decade Hong Kong has concentrated on raising the bar and closing the gap or “lifting the floor” for all students, says a report by McKinsey management consultants.

The report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better, rated Hong Kong’s education system among the best in the world.

But Hong Kong schools are undergoing another huge reform, lopping off the final year of secondary school and instead moving towards four-year university degrees from 2012 to align it with China.

Abandoning the old British model is a gamble and no-one knows how it will play out in terms of quality.

Top teachers

However, Hong Kong believes it has laid solid, unshakeable foundations.

“In the late 1990s we moved to all-graduate [teachers]. If we want to have high achievement, subject expertise is very important for secondary schools,” said Catherine KK Chan, deputy secretary for education in the Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong, like Singapore, now recruits teachers from the top 30% of the graduate cohort. By contrast, according to the OECD, the US recruits from the bottom third.

Shanghai recruits teachers more broadly. But it is already a select group.

Shanghai controls who lives and works in the city through China’s notorious “houkou” or permanent residency system, allowing only the best and the brightest to become residents with access to jobs and schools.

“For over 50 years Shanghai has been accumulating talent, the cream of the cream in China. That gives it an incredible advantage,” says Ruth Heyhoe, former head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education, now at the University of Toronto.

Migrant children

The OECD’s Mr Schleicher believes teacher training has played a part in Shanghai’s success, with higher-performing teachers mentoring teachers from lower-performing schools, to raise standards across the board.

“What is striking about Shanghai is that there is quite a large socio-economic variability in the student population, but it does not play out in terms of its Pisa results,” said Mr Schleicher.

“Some people have even suggested we did not include Shanghai’s fairly large immigration population. Around 5.1% of the population are migrants from rural areas. Their children are definitely included,” he said.

Last year Shanghai claimed to be the first Chinese city to provide free schooling for all migrant children. This year migrants outnumbered Shanghai-born children for the first time in state primary schools, making up 54% of the intake.

Prof Cheng agrees the Pisa results reflect a broad cross section. However the majority of migrant children are below 15–the age at which the tests for international comparisons are taken. It is also the age of transfer to senior secondaries.

“If they were allowed to attend senior secondary schools in the city, the results would be very different,” said Prof Cheng.

Even now “to some extent, where people are born largely determines their chances of educational success”, said Gu Jun, a professor of sociology at Shanghai university.

Their societies are changing rapidly and for both Shanghai and Hong Kong, being top might prove to be easier than staying there.

18 responses to “How China Is Winning the School Race”

  1. Bardon says:

    Intelligence shmintelligence. I don’t buy this IQ stuff. Chinese (and Japanese and Koreans) have been serious in education & learning for past two decades (Japanese much longer). And ? Science-wise ?

    Here are Wolf prizes (I won’t mention Nobels due to politicization) for fields like math, physics, chemistry, bio sciences, agriculture,….:


    Or Fields medals for mathematicians under 40:

    Sure, Asians are more prominent than before, but they’re not essential leaders or dominant trailblazers. Never have been. No Asiatic Prometheus. They just slavishly subordinate themselves to their parents’ requests & study more assiduously. Good for high maintenance of the already present technology, not good enough for path-breaking.

  2. Anonymous says:

    A) American schools do a tremendous job given what they have to

    work with,

    B) Asian countries score better not only because of homogeneous IQs, but also because they weed out the dummies. We educate everyone,

    C) When measured strictly whites against China or Japan, etc, Americans score statistically equivalent or above.

    American schools are world class for anyone who tries. It’s the fact we have so many students who are troublemakers is the problem.

  3. Jeddermann. says:

    Don’t believe all this stuff about China. About 10 % of the populace is doing well, the rest doing peasant hard pick and shovel peasant labor in the fields. Shanghai and Hong Kong are NOT representative of the whole nation. Far from it. And the Oriental is so concerned about “face” they will do anything to beat everyone else.

    And don’t believe that stuff too about how much money they have and all that. NO business transparency or the like such as you would find in the U.S.

  4. Dr. Quackenbush says:

    This just demonstrates anew why me need to stop Asian immigration to the USA. We cannot — and will not — compete with the bizarre slave-driving education ethic these students and parents adhere to. School all day and then more cramming for hours at night? What they get out of all of this is a massive collection of facts memorized and problems drilled,which allows them to excel at test taking. In a modern hi-tech society,much like the one WE hope to have once Barack Obama is gone, testing is essential for determining skills and choosing who will advance. But if the Chinese “game” the test, and their scores OVER predict their performance, they will advance over white students. Not only will whites find it harder and harder to advance in our own society, but we will fall ever more under the grip of a Chinese-style bureaucratic technical elite. Let the Asians stay home. I am willing to compete with them INTERnationally; but INTRAnationally I think we may be heading for a very bad outcome.

  5. (AWG) Average White Guy says:

    When I visited China a few years ago, their schools were poorly maintained, paint peeling, floors not swept and walls down-right dirty. The building, themselves, were old.

    Yet the students performed very well.

  6. Question Diversity says:

    1. Lying. Do you trust all of Beijing’s official pronouncements?

    2. Not 100% of 15-year olds take these tests.

    3. Beijing is acting like a sane country that wants to grow and become more powerful – They devote most of their educational resources to their bright students, and little to their dummies. In contrast, we close pre- and post-hours science labs to bright students so that the money can be spent on black and Hispanic dummies who haven’t learned how to read very well by their high school years.

  7. Courtney from Alabama says:

    I applaud Northeast Asians for their group oriented way of doing things and their discipline. They do many things right. I have stressed this many times on this website. I think this author here explains things pretty accurately when explaining China’s success compared to Western countries. American Renaissance, on the other hand, as the comment from the AR staff under this article’s title indicates, needs to back off a little from it’s obsession with Asian IQ.

    The high Asian IQ explains many things when comparing Northeast Asians to hispanics, Amerindians, blacks, Southern Asians, Southeast Asians, and Polynesians. However, it is a moot point when comparing Asians to whites. Asians only have a slightly higher IQ compared to whites, and there are obviously many unanswered questions in regards to why whites have created so much more compared to Asians. This article even admits that the Chinese owe a lot to British rule. I think Rushton gets a little too carried away when he proclaims the Chinese as being the first to live on Mars when they haven’t even put a man on the moon yet (something we did in the sixties).

    Let’s give whites a little more credit when comparing them to Asians, as great as they are. In the mean time we need to look at their discipline and devotion to their race’s success and learn from it. I will admit that. But if we are going to admit to the success of Asians due to their group mentality, then we also need to point out the upper hand that whites have in creativity due to our individualistic mentality.

    And what did the full list look like in this article anyways? Was it a few select Chinese cities up against other countries? That isn’t really fair, especially since the author admits that these cities represent the best of China. Plus, there are plenty of European countries that usually don’t fall too far behind China in these rankings anyhow.

  8. john says:

    We should ship them 20 million African-Americans to even things out.

  9. Anonymous says:

    One thing I’ve learned about the Chinese mind is that they are robustly cynical realists. There is very little sentimentality in their outlook on the world.

    They know who they are, and they know what they want from us.

    The ambitious ones highly focused on getting ahead in the game of life.

  10. Anonymous says:

    we need to look at their discipline and devotion to their race’s success and learn from it.

    That’s true. White Americans used to be just as hard working and committed to their education and success as the Chinese are today. During the pioneer days, when whites who’d been raised by Indians were rescued and brought back to white civilization, they would often run away and go back to their Indian way of life. A major reason for this was because of the difference in Indian and white parenting. Indian parenting was much more lax. White society was much more rigid and structured. Whites parented with the belief that to spare the rod was to spoil the child, and white children had far more expectations placed on them.

    When I taught English in China, I recognized the difference in Chinese teaching style immediately: children who grew restless, jostled each other, or whose attention drifted, quickly had their hands smacked. It was not uncommon to see this about 4 times in a single class period. I also realized that the most well-behaved, and consequently easiest class to teach, was the group who had the strictest teacher.

  11. Oberweis says:

    @Courtney from Alabama,

    Regarding why whites have created so much more, much of it can attributed to white Jews. Look at any field and the top performers, the biggest achievers, the ones who find the impossible, are often Jewish.

  12. Anonymous says:

    China practices massive selective migration in its cities: ordinary folks can’t just pack up and move to HK, Shanghai, or Beijing-ONLY smart people are given permission to (my wife is Chinese). These scores are as representative as taking Silicon Valley Whites and giving them education tests. Not to mention that I have a sneaking suspicion that the Chinese let only the brightest schools sit for the test. What a waste of time debating this!

  13. Anonymous says:

    If Chinese are so smart, why have Europeans dominated? Isn’t it funny that even the most mediocre Indo-European Caucasian civilizations-India (the majority of whose population is ethnically Caucasian, if Aborigine-like Tribals and Dalits are excluded) and Persia, were still comparable to the most advanced Asian civilization, China, for most of history?

    I don’t care who scores what on some IQ test: White Caucasians rule. End of story!

  14. ymo says:

    what will happen when someone figures out how to automate a method for groundbreaking discovery? will the chinese , in spite of having less raw talent and tendency for groundbreaking discovery, end up studying the method, and out doing the more talented whites in this regard, because the whites are too lazy to study?

  15. Madison Grant says:

    Jedderman (#3) nailed it:

    When this report came out China was the only country not to release nationwide scores. Instead they released the scores of students in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing, their most successful cities and where scores would presumably be higher than in the poorer countryside.

    Maybe we should have submitted the scores of MIT students to represent the US.

  16. John Engelman says:

    The intellectual superiority of the Chinese can be explained by the imperial exam system. For about two thousand years young men who could pass the exams entered the Scholar Gentry. They were given high salaries, and expected to have several wives and many children. Youths of humble origins could rise to the top of Chinese society in a year or two if they were intelligent enough.

    In the United States Orientals are far more prominent on the finest universities than in the population as a whole. They are much less prominent in prisons, however.

  17. John Engelman says:

    Before the Renaissance Chinese civilization was technologically more advanced than the West. When Marco Polo published his account of China many in the West doubted that such an advanced civilization could exist.

    During the Ming Dynasty, which existed from 1368 to 1644, the Chinese indulged in their version of American exceptionalism. They decided that they were the Middle Kingdom, surrounded by inferior nations that had nothing to teach them.

    During the nineteenth century, the Chinese had two additional disadvantages when competing with the West. The Manchu Dynasty was entering into the decline Chinese dynasties experience after a century or two of rule. In addition, the Manchus were not Han Chinese, so they had difficulty appealing to Chinese nationalism.

    During the twentieth century, when Sun Yat Sen died in 1925 he was not replaced with a man who combined his leadership skills and integrity. Chaing Kai Chek and Mao Tse Tung were tyrants who valued personal power more than the well being of China. The Chinese Civil War, and the Japanese invasion retarded the advance of China.

    In the twenty-first century the Chinese are likely to achieve the prominence that history has denied them for two centuries.

  18. fred says:

    Overall, I think China has a fairly good national average IQ. But I’m not sure that’s the whole answer for the performance of Shanghai and Hong Kong. As the article itself points out, there are two other factors.

    First, those cities are extremely competitive and only the best and brightest can afford to live there. Indeed, only the best and brightest are even ALLOWED to live there. The government restricts immigration into those areas from other parts of the country. So the average IQ of Shanghai and Hong Kong is significantly above the national average.

    And, second, China in general and those cities in particular are excruciatingly competitive. Those kids don’t do anything but eat, sleep and study. Who am I kidding? Those kids don’t sleep and they probably eat with chopsticks in one hand and a pencil in the other. So what you have is a group with a very high potential that is doing everything humanly possible to maximize their scores.