Top of the class

Shanghai students ace world ranking

Top of the class

Kids of Delaware, beware of her

Less time spent on Karl Marx, and top marks seems to be the result.

One interpretation, perhaps, of the recent OECD survey that revealed teenagers from Shanghai had outscored their international peers in all three subject matters that were tested last year: reading, maths and science.

This is the first time that China has participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey – a worldwide evaluation of 15 year-old school students’ scholastic performance.

In reading – the main focus of the PISA survey – more than 19% of the Shanghai students attained the top two grades, almost double the proportion in the US and nearly three times the average of major developed countries.

In mathematics, Shanghai students were in a class of their own, outperforming second-placed Singapore, which has long been viewed as an educational superstar.

Shanghai’s startling results quickly grabbed the international spotlight. “The rise of China as an economic and political juggernaut has become a familiar refrain, but now there’s another area in which the Chinese are suddenly emerging as a world power: education,” declares TIME magazine.

Experts say they aren’t surprised that Shanghai leads the pack, given the strong emphasis on education in Chinese families.

“Clearly the chopsticks societies – the ones with a Confucian heritage – are at the top of the league table and the reason is the value placed on education in these countries,“ Gerard Postiglioni at the University of Hong Kong told the South China Morning Post.

But not everyone is impressed by the results. Some say they are hardly surprising as Chinese students are more accustomed to competitive exams, with schools working their students into the weekends. In addition, the OECD estimated that eight out of 10 Shanghainese schoolchildren get additional, out-of-hours, private tuition.

Indeed, news of the PISA test quickly put the spotlight back on China’s test-obsessed culture. “So while the world is appreciating the strengths of China’s education system, we are wondering why the country has failed to produce entrepreneurs and innovators needed to run a 21st century global economy?” asks a blogger on internet portal “The answer: Chinese students have no imagination or creativity.”

Many argue the rigidity of China’s exam culture can become stifling, creating narrow-minded bookworms adept at taking tests and memorising theories.

Jiefang Daily raises a similar concern: “Even though Chinese students score high marks in tests and surveys, compared to students in other countries mainland students tend to spend less time on sports and other extra-curricular activities, which are not core components of the gaokao (college entrance exam, see WiC19). So the big question is, how can we encourage creative thinking skills so that students can apply the things they learn in school to real life?”

Nevertheless, Shanghai’s performance in the PISA survey is clearly attracting attention. A case of China’s most go-getting city leading the way again? Not necessarily: “Yes, Shanghai represents the best of China, but the best of China is now scoring better than anywhere else in the world. America’s 15 year-olds ranked 14th in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th in math, below the average,” says Thomas Friedman, the outspoken critic at the New York Times.

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