Asia Briefing: Shanghai students top of the class


Shanghai teenagers put the rest of the world to shame when it comes to reading, maths and science, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s triennial student survey.

The survey showed that students in China’s financial hub possessed the knowledge and skills equivalent to at least one additional year of schooling than their peers in countries like the US, Germany and Britain. In maths, students in Shanghai had the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above the OECD average.

Education reforms
Shanghai, China’s biggest city as well as one of the richest, has been at the forefront of education reforms in China in recent years. The study, which tested the maths, reading and science knowledge of about 510,000 15-year-olds last year, suggested East Asian schools were encouraging academic excellence by tackling tough classrooms and abandoning rote learning, long considered a mainstay of Chinese education.

But the survey is also controversial, because it focuses just on Shanghai, not on the country as a whole, and some have accused China of “cheating” on the latest Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA). “The Shanghai scores frankly to me are difficult to interpret. They are almost meaningless,” Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at US think tank Brookings Institution, told reporters.

But even if you strip out Shanghai, East Asia did pretty well. Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macau and Japan also won high marks for mathematics, reading and science. The OECD’s head of education Andreas Schleicher said East Asian countries still had to improve on ensuring that talented students get top jobs, and it is difficult for women in many East Asian countries to break the glass ceiling despite being highly educated.

‘Hard work’
Data on other Chinese provinces and cities is not yet published by PISA because not enough regions take part in the tests to be considered representative, according to a spokesman. However, China as a whole is expected to be included in the 2015 assessment.

“Practice and hard work go a long way towards developing each student’s potential, but students can only achieve at the highest levels when they believe that they are in control of their success and that they are capable of achieving at high levels,” the PISA report said.

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