Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Opinion: The costs of Shanghai's education success story

By Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 0458 GMT (1258 HKT)
Students attend class at the Jing'an Education College Affiliated School in Shanghai. The Chinese city of 23 million people topped PISA's 2012 study, performing at a level at least one year more advanced than the average 15-year-old in math, science and reading. Students attend class at the Jing'an Education College Affiliated School in Shanghai. The Chinese city of 23 million people topped PISA's 2012 study, performing at a level at least one year more advanced than the average 15-year-old in math, science and reading.
1: Shanghai
2: Singapore
3: Hong Kong
4: Taiwan
5: South Korea
12: Finland
26: United Kingdom
36: United States
61: Jordan
62: Colombia
63: Qatar
64: Indonesia
65: Peru
  • Shanghai schools came top in the OECD's internaional education rankings
  • Shanghai's triumph comes at too greater cost, argues teacher Jiang Xueqin
  • Cheating and bribery are problems at Chinese schools, he says.
  • "Dog-eat-dog" mentality makes schoolchildren unhappy and unhealthy

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School in Beijing, one of China's most famous public schools. Jiang appears as a guest on this month's episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout. You can follow him on Twitter at @xueqinjiang.

Beijing (CNN) -- In 2009, Shanghai participated for the first time in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the tri-annual survey of the world's school systems.

And when Shanghai's teenagers proved their math, science, and reading were much better than their peers in the United States, Germany, and Japan, the world was shocked and awed.

Here, much more so than the 2008 Beijing Olympics or Shanghai's skyscrapers or China's double-digit growth, was proof positive that the future belonged to China.

READ: Shanghai teens top international education ranking

The latest PISA results released this week show that Shanghai schools are still number one, but, as I argued after Shanghai's first placing in 2009, the triumph comes at too great a cost.

The dog-eat-dog and winner-take-all mentality of China's school system isn't just making children unhappy and unhealthy -- it's also causing cheating and bribery, leading to an unfair and unequal school system.

Jiang Xueqin is deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School in Beijing.
Jiang Xueqin is deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School in Beijing.
The results  The results
The resultsThe results

The teachers

A tour of any Shanghai junior high school offers an easy explanation as to why Shanghai placed first on the PISA.

They may be crammed and overcrowded, but the halls are clean and tidy, classrooms packed with attentive and focused students, and meeting rooms filled with university-educated and highly-motivated teachers trading notes on how to better design their 45-minute lesson.

The incentives to succeed bind the school together, and guide it. Teachers are paid about 10,000 yuan a month ($1,640), which makes them solidly middle-class in Shanghai.

In their PISA performance, Shanghai's students show "a high level of resilience," which is to say that poor students do better than expected.

READ: Why Asian schools succeed

That's in large part because the Shanghai government is committed to leaving no child behind: It funds all schools equally, partners high-performing schools with low-performing ones and offers fast-track promotions to administrators who can turn around bad schools.

In one Shanghai junior high school I visited, teachers stayed after school to tutor failing students -- and the head teacher there honored those teachers in school assemblies.

But these teachers can drive Audis if their students do well enough on tests: Yes, administrators can give teachers bonuses, but the real money is in grateful parents and moonlighting at for-profit cram schools (after school tutoring programs).

And the head that honored teachers who tutored failing kids told me that in her experience, the best indicator of a student's school performance is his/her socio-economic background. She said the tutoring of poor kids is just a bandage, a way to get them through the system and not have them drag the school down.

On China: China's education gap
Can China replicate Shanghai's triumph?
On China: Shanghai's Success

The parents

Because Shanghai's schools are so good, Shanghai parents have to pay -- even if it's not exorbitant tuition fees.

Shanghai's real estate market is notoriously expensive, but it's downright unaffordable in the neighborhoods of Shanghai's very best public elementary schools, and when families can't use real estate to buy into the best schools, they try to bribe their way in.

This culture of bribing public school officials means I can't maintain friendships, make new ones, and date -- a girl I dated in 2010 told me she'd give me 200,000 yuan ($32,800) to get her sister into my school.

And because Shanghai's elementary school classrooms have 30 or 40 students, parents trip over each other in the mad rush to take teachers out to dinner and offer gifts in the hope that their only child gets a little more attention.

The bribery is on top of every other advantage that Shanghai's wealthy parents have bestowed upon their only child: Weekend piano, math, and English classes, private tutoring, summer camp in America, vacations in Europe and above all a born-to-succeed attitude.

The students

For the students, the race is to see who can enter Shanghai's best two universities -- Fudan University and Jiao Tong.

But it's just not the prospect of a good job that drives students on. Scoring highly on tests in Shanghai is like scoring a lot of touchdowns in Texas -- it's what wins you social respect, and soon comes to define your identity and self-worth.

There's substantial social science research -- popularized in books such as Daniel Pink's Drive -- that suggests performance-based incentives are bad for students and teachers.

Incentives do not just make students stressed, lonely, and unhappy -- they also kill student's innate curiosity, creativity, and love of learning.

And high-stakes testing has led to a culture of cheating in China. Last year, when authorities tried to stop cheating, a riot broke out -- parents were angry that their children were being singled out when everyone was cheating.

The best model?

In the excitement over Shanghai's PISA victory we tend to forget the real lesson to be learned: How Finland can be the real model for education reform in the world.

Finland, which ranked 12th in the 2012 math rankings, may not be number one, but, in my experience from visiting the country, it's succeeded in equipping all Finnish students with the tools to succeed in the knowledge economy without sacrificing their childhood, curiosity and creativity.

After Shanghai children leave school at 4 p.m., they go on to cram school and do homework until bedtime. In stark contrast, when Finnish children leave school at noon, they just go play for the whole day.

That Finnish students do almost as well as their Shanghai peers on PISA suggest that long school days, cram schools, and homework are not really about helping students learn -- it's more about pleasing anxious, demanding, and hyper-competitive parents.

Of course, there's a rising tide of Chinese parents who care more about their child's well-being than his or her test score.

And these wealthy and well-educated parents who understand the costs and sacrifices of Shanghai's PISA victory are emigrating abroad or opting for new private Western-style schools that have sprung up in major Chinese cities.

That's bad news for Chinese education reform because those who are in the best position to make a stand are instead voting with their feet.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Jiang Xueqin

Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0929 GMT (1729 HKT)
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.