Why are Chinese schoolkids so good?

There are two stereotypes about schooling in east Asia: the students work extremely hard, and the learning is by rote. In fact, things are more complicated, as the OECD’s latest global schools survey has shown.

Shanghai came top in the Pisa survey, with three other east Asian territories in the first five. But not all east Asian countries did well, says the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher, adding that it’s innovative thought that is assessed. Shanghai schools aren’t turning children into walking textbooks: they are channelling their ability and enthusaism into exceptional results. How?

Undertaken every three years, the Pisa survey tests 15-year olds, with a rotating focus on maths, reading and science. The emphasis is on broad learning: literacy tests involve reasoning, for example. In the three previous editions – 2000, 2003 and 2006 – Finland came top. But this year, with the focus on reading, Finland was displaced by Shanghai, with South Korea second, Hong Kong fourth and Singapore fifth. (Thousands of children are normally tested in each country; but in China the survey was centred on Shanghai.)

So why did Shanghai do so well? The OECD points to Chinese school reforms: it was impressed by the initiative shown by teachers, who are now better paid, better trained and keen to mould their own curricula. Poor teachers are speedily replaced. China has also expanded school access, and moved away from learning by rote.

The last point is key: Russia performs well in rote-based assessments, but not in Pisa, says Schleicher, head of the indicators and analysis division at the OECD’s directorate for education. China does well in both rote-based and broader assessments.

The OECD also points to cultural factors – widespread expectations of high performance, and pressure from parents. And it’s the interaction between culture and the system that is hard to untangle, says Schleicher.

If schools did well just because of hard work, then countries with similar cultures should see similar results. But Finland beats Sweden by a distance, Shanghai beats Taiwan, and Hong Kong beats Macau. Equally, if the schools themselves were uniquely important, then why do young Chinese immigrants do so well in UK classrooms? Culture and system almost certainly reinforce each other: with a merit-based system stimulating hard work, and vice-versa.

What can the Pisa survey – recognised as authoritative by many education policymakers – say about universities and employment? Schleicher tells beyondbrics that, according to medium-term data from Canada, students who do well on the Pisa survey are very likely to do well in higher education and the job market.

However, that correlation would not necessarily be repeated in China. For one thing, parental pressure eases once students get to universities. For another, Chinese universities have been accused of corruption in how they award degrees – which may undermine the incentives for hard work.

There are other unanswered questions. Is Shanghai the exception or the rule in Chinese school standards? In some countries, major cities underperform the national average, but that seems less likely in China, given the coast-interior disparities. However, the OECD did look at some rural areas, and found they matched Shanghai’s quality.

Second, if school education is so strong in China, is the country at risk of over-educating its youth? South Korea, second in the Pisa list, has an enviable knowledge economy, for example in terms of patent applications. Yet even the mighty chaebol can’t employ all graduates – leaving some to retrain as bakers (see article).

Third, does the future success of Chinese schools depend on changes in the economy? If Chinese manufacturing continues to revolve around low wages, many students may see less reward – and less incentive – for hard work. Or they make work even harder and more innovatively to grab the few good jobs on offer, or to move overseas.

These are questions for other surveys. What the Pisa results suggest is that, just like Chinese companies, Chinese schoolchildren won’t be pushed to the back of the class.

Related reading:
What is a college degree worth in China?, New York Times (Dec 4)
Education: the thorn in China’s upside, beyondbrics (Oct 20)