Editor's note: This month's episode of On China with Kristie Lu Stout is on education. It airs for the first time on Wednesday, December 18, 6:30 pm HKT. For all viewing times please click here.
Shanghai (CNN) -- This month, "On China" is in Shanghai. Kristie Lu Stout meets OECD special advisor on education Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Principal of Tsinghua University High School Jiang Xueqin, and Teach for China founder Andrea Pasinetti. Together they explore China's classrooms -- from the country's affluent cities to its impoverished rural regions -- and question whether China can replicate Shanghai's education success across the nation.
It's been called the world's best school system. For the second time in a row, students in China's richest city, Shanghai, have come in at number one in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). But in the rest of China, where millions sweat through on the world's most competitive college entrance exams, the education system is still criticized for placing too much emphasis on memorization and not independent thinking.
Kristie Lu Stout: Andreas Schleicher, Jiang Xueqin and Andrea Pasinetti, welcome to On China. Now we are here at the Y. K. Pao School in Shanghai. It's a private school, that uses the Chinese curriculum, and it's part of the Shanghai success story, a series of schools that rank at the very top internationally, due in part to the teachers here, the students, the parents, some of whom are watching us right now. And Andreas, I was wondering whether I could start with you. What has PISA learned over the years about the Shanghai Education system?
Andreas Schleicher: Well Shanghai comes out on top of the international comparisons -- in math, science reading. What is more impressive is that Shanghai succeeds in leveraging the talent of all children, even those from difficult social backgrounds.
Kristie Lu Stout: Why is it that schools in Shanghai rank so highly internationally?
Jiang Xueqin: A lot of it is that the students are engaged in learning. The parents, the students, the community are engaged in making sure their child succeeds. That's very different from the situation in America where kids are basically very concerned about how they do in sports.
Andreas Schleicher: But that's also... a very interesting compliment to this. Is that it's the belief that every child can succeed. Every child can do well in mathematics. That belief, we can see that in the PISA results. We ask students, you know, what makes you successful in a field like mathematics. And in the United States, a lot people say, "well this is about talent." You know. I'm not born as a genius I better study something else. In China, in Shanghai, you have 9 out of 10 students telling you, "It depends on me. If I invest the effort, my teachers are going to help me to be successful."
Andrea Pasinetti: I actually think there are remarkable similarities between the Chinese education system, and the education system in Shanghai in particular, and various aspects of the U.S. education system. I was meeting with a U.S. educator, and he was reflecting on the fact that so many reforms that are being implemented in China today, which are commonplace here at least perceived as commonplace, are currently on the docket in the U.S. and perceived as being the very forefront of reform there. So for instance toggling teacher pay to student performance, extending the school day, consolidating schools to some extent, making sure that kids spend more days in school on any given year.
Kristie Lu Stout: Now, take me inside a high-performing school here in Shanghai. I mean, what are the teachers like?
Jiang Xueqin: Well, I mean the teachers are very well-paid, very professional. They have a lot of time to develop their skills. The Shanghai Government will spend a lot of resources in making sure that each teacher is well trained. Has opportunities to go abroad, has opportunities to learn from the best teachers. And there are a lot of meetings between the teachers and the principal making sure that the curriculum that each class is well taught. I mean, it's amazing when you go into these schools. And Andreas can certainly back me up here, is that they have the class lesson structured every minute. And it's all very efficient. And so there's that dedication to professionalism and competence in Shanghai schools.
Kristie Lu Stout: What does the success here in Shanghai mean for the future of China? I mean, do you anticipate that the innovators, the leaders of the knowledge economy in China, will come from Shanghai? What's the bigger picture here?
Andreas Schleicher: Well, education today is your economy tomorrow. In fact, that's what we have seen. The United States led the world in education in the 60s and 70s and much of its economic success is built on that foundation. So in fact that's the smartest investment China can make in the next generation of its people.
Jiang Xueqin: I'm going to play devil's advocate and question the importance of a curriculum-based education for the future success of a child in the global economy of today and tomorrow. And that's to say, how important are math and science skills versus social skills like trust, empathy, collaboration, self-understanding, perseverance, resilience. And unfortunately I don't think these things are emphasized enough in the Shanghai schools.
Andreas Schleicher: Yeah but one doesn't sort of exclude the other. I mean, the absence of mathematics skills doesn't imply the presence of social skills or vice versa. And I think we have to look at those things in conjecture. There are clearly ways for Shanghai to improve. I mean, the social skills area is an important example. But at the very same time, you know, the biggest surprise from Shanghai to the world was not that students did well on reproducing subject matter content but that they were very very good in those higher order skills. Because the PISA test doesn't reward what you know it rewards what you can do with what you know. And these students were actually very very good at that, much to the surprise, because actually one of the stereotypes of Chinese education: all these students can just reproduce what they've been taught before. But there's much much more to this to the success in Shanghai.
Kristie Lu Stout: Can the success story here be replicated across China?
Andrea Pasinetti: I think it's already being replicated. In fact, there's a sister province relationship in place between Shanghai and Yunnan province where I place a lot of Teach for China teachers. And in fact 6 years ago when we first started this organization, I met with a local education bureau official who talked to me about the experience of visiting Shanghai, visiting Shanghai schools, talking to leaders in the Shanghai education system. And how formative and pivotal that was in terms of the leadership he saw in his community. So a lot of the success we're seeing here is institutionally being disseminated across the country. And being integrated organically in other local communities.
Jiang Xueqin: I think that Shanghai, in many ways, is unique in China. You have a very progressive education, bureau who wants to make sure that all kids have access to the best education possible. You have tremendous funding, for teachers and for teacher training. You have a very professional, competent teaching staff all over Shanghai. You have a middle class, a very strong middle class, very well educated, in Shanghai who is committed to making sure that their kids have the best education possible. That is not true anywhere else in China.
The Gaokao (China's standardized college entrance examination)
Jiang Xueqin: National curriculum is consistent throughout China. I mean, you have some variation but remember that all schools are working towards the Gaokao. Which is a standardized college entrance examination in China. So, from the first day that students enter the school system, they're working towards building the knowledge and the test taking ability to do well on the Gaokao, which guarantees their admission into college.
Kristie Lu Stout: So schools in China become, in effect, test prep mills.
Jiang Xueqin: That's exactly what it is.
Kristie Lu Stout: Just to get ready for the Gaokao.
Jiang Xueqin: That's exactly the curriculum in China. Right now, since 2010 when the prime minister released an education reform plan, there's been a lot of emphasis placed on reforming the curriculum to allow more space for individuality, creative thinking in Chinese schools. Unfortunately, there's also been a lot of grass roots pressure from parents to maintain the way things are because the Gaokao from the parents perspective is really the only shot of a lower class kid, to break in to the middle class. If you take that away, then income inequality in China becomes permanent. And, I'll put this very bluntly, that if the Chinese government were to cancel the Gaokao tomorrow, you would see riots all over this country. That's how important the Gaokao is in the Chinese culture.
Kristie Lu Stout: Because the Gaokao is inherently fair and meritocratic.
Andrea Pasinetti: Well let's take this one step at a time; first of all, the number of students in the education system who are taking the Gaokao is actually relatively small as a percentage of all students in the education system in China. Because the education system in China, the compulsory band of education, namely the band that all students need to participate in mandatorily is actually 9 years not 12. And the Gaokao takes place in the 12 grade. So there's a selection process that takes place between first grade and when a student takes the Gaokao and not all students make it through that selection process. So the Gaokao is one portion of the puzzle and because it is a very rigorous, stressful kind of event in students' lives it is the focus of a lot of attention, debate and conversation. But it's really one aspect of a much broader picture. So I actually, I would disagree heartily and categorically with the characterization of schools as Gaokao, kind of, mills.
Jiang Xueqin: The problem is this. The problem is that Gaokao is a signifier of success and status in China. So the, the consequence of not taking the Gaokao, not performing well on the Gaokao, means you're marginalized from society. And that's the problem in China which is that the Gaokao defines education success. Define, It's the "end all, be all" in Chinese education.
Andreas Schleicher: I would still think your reforming, adapting the Gaokao, the exam, is going to be the test of truth for China's education system in the long run. If you don't get the goal posts right, you know, your whole education system, the kind of skills that are valued by today's economies are very very different. The steepest decline in the demand for skills is no longer manual skills. It's what we call routine cognitive skills. The kind of things that are easy to teach. The kind of things that are easy to test in an exam like this are becoming less relevant. So that's the biggest challenge for China.
Kristie Lu Stout: And we're seeing more and more, high school aged children trying to redefine success by missing the Gaokao altogether and going overseas for high school and university.
Jiang Xueqin: Absolutely.
Kristie Lu Stout: Is this a rising phenomenon?
Jiang Xueqin: Absolutely it is a huge phenomenon since 2005, 2006 with the rise of China's middle class and America welcoming Chinese students. You've seen a huge influx of Chinese students going to university for undergraduate. Before it's all graduate because the graduate programs brought scholarships. When nowadays you have a rising middle class with the money to pay 50,000 dollars a year to send their kids to America for 4 years to get undergraduate education. And so they're opting out of the Gaokao system and choosing a western system because they believe that in the future economy, in China's future economy, creative thinking, collaborative skills are much more important for success than just ability to well on a test.
Andrea Pasinetti: I actually don't think students are going abroad for their education because they want to somehow circumvent the Gaokao. I think the appeal to them is the quality of the tertiary institution they're able to receive there.
Andreas Schleicher: I think it's not about having an exam or not. The exam is one of the big strengths of education in China. That's about fairness, it's about access, it's about making sure that you know there are incentives for students to succeed, for students to learn better, teachers to teach better, schools operate more effectively. This is a big big strength. The question is can that strength be adapted so that the future economy is well-served?
Andreas Schleicher: I want to come back to this issue of the achievement gap. It is large. No question about it. At the very same time what's impressive is that actually a child from a poor background has a much better chance in China to be well educated than almost anywhere else in the world.
Kristie Lu Stout: Really?
Andreas Schleicher: The issue is that the window of opportunity China has to, to address that gap is much shorter than in most other countries. Because the consequences of low achievement in terms of access to the labor market, access to well-paying jobs are very very severe in this country.
Kristie Lu Stout: I still want to get a picture of what is, what it's like inside an under performing, whether it's a rural school in China or a school for the children of migrant workers in urban area. What do you see when you go inside? What is it really like?
Andreas Schleicher: Well, again, you know, the learning environment you would encounter there, the quality is a lot higher than what you'd encounter in similar context almost anywhere else in the world. That's the amazing success of China in deploying its best resources where they can make most of a difference. Uh, the problem is that you just have a lot more of those kind of contextual conditions. There is a lot more poverty in China than in many advanced economies.
Andrea Pasinetti: Now, the big debate, and this is a debate that exists in China and elsewhere, is can you reform education and can you afford children an absolute great education without first solving the constraints of poverty? Right? So the big difference, just to paint a vivid picture between a school in Beijing and a school in rural Sichuan or Yunnan, is that, the environs of the school -- the environments immediately outside the school walls -- are very different. But what's interesting, and what China has done remarkably well, is the fact that school communities per se, like the school and everything that's contained within the school walls, really tries to limit, and very successfully does so, the learning environment for students. So a lot of these schools tend to be boarding schools. So the school provides not only a context for classroom instruction it also provides a context for personal growth and exploration.
Jiang Xueqin: I beg to differ. Based on my own personal experience, I think that kids in the rural regions are in a huge disadvantage. Teachers and schools are under resourced. Maybe on the surface, the schools look the same, but in terms of teacher training, teacher pay, qualifications. The other issue is that the rural regions, there's a lot of, there's a lot of movement so parents move to the cities leaving their kids behind in the schools. So there isn't that parental support and guidance that kids need to thrive -- especially in the elementary school years. The other issue is that, in China, rural regions, rural schools are under a lot of cultural stigma. No one believes, no one in China believes the will succeed, no one expects them to succeed. So that kids drop out by grade 7 or grade 8. They've dropped out. They've moved to the cities to work as factory workers or whatever. It doesn't matter to them. But, in Shanghai it's fantastic because all students believe that education can transform who they are. I did not see that in the schools that I visited in the rural regions. And that's a huge problem in China right now.
Andrea Pasinetti: So I just want to rebut because I think that's such an irresponsible perception. It is a huge misconception that local communities aren't invested in the education of their children and grandchildren. I speak to grandmothers who are illiterate, who live oftentimes on 2 or 3 dollars a day, and whose entire mindset and entire personal orientation, and of whose resources, a vast majority are committed to the education of his or her grandchild, who would do anything and stop at nothing to make sure that the child they have in their home is able to achieve a great education. The big difficulty is that oftentimes they don't where to start. They don't know how exactly to accomplish it. Now, I think that there is a lot of truth to the fact that teachers in low income communities are less prepared, less well-trained, that schools are less resourced and hence are able to pay their teachers less than, uh schools in Beijing and Shanghai. But what the government is doing to ensure that they're able to climb the learning curve quickly is actually remarkable.
Kristie Lu Stout: I find it extraordinary just the two different views from both of you here.
Andreas Schleicher: We can consolidate them, actually.
Kristie Lu Stout: You can consolidate them. Alright, please do.
Andreas Schleicher: There is no question that rural schools in China do better than similar schools almost anywhere else in the world. They are a lot more advanced, they have better resources, better teachers.
Kristie Lu Stout: But there's room for improvement.
Andreas Schleicher: There's a lot. There's a big gap. And basically what China has to do is it has 15 years to close that gap which had taken 150 years than the rest of the industrialized world to do it. So in a sense the magnitude of the challenges is there, the achievement gap is there, but at the very same time I would say the conditions for actually addressing this are far better than anywhere else. And once again, if you are at a disadvantaged school in China your chance to succeed is much greater than in much of the rest of the world.
Kristie Lu Stout: Okay so, from the very top, how is the government addressing that?
Andreas Schleicher: Well its creating first of all incentives to get teachers in to those kinds of communities. Teach for China is just one example but there are many efforts underway to basically make it attractive, creating career paths around it, you know? If you're a vice-principal in a high-performing school in Shanghai, you want to become principal? The way to do it is actually to get to a rural school, to get to a poorer school, to transform that school. It's basically building teaching careers around addressing challenges just than around seniority. It's about resource deployment. If you think about the way the government uses money from rich provinces to support poor provinces. In much in the rest of the world it goes the other way around.
Jiang Xueqin: I'm not very optimistic about education inequality in China. I think that, over the years it will become worse and worse. And the reason why is that the rich and power are choosing to detach themselves from the traditional school system. Right now, we have, we're in Y. K. Pao right? Y. K. Pao is representative of future trend in China of new private schools catering to the middle class. Giving them an education that is very western, very progressive, because of this trend, we're seeing a lot of resources being diverted from the most needed areas into the most privileged areas.
Andrea Pasinetti: China is probably the only country in the world -- or certainly country that I've been exposed to -- that has made equity, as Jiang was saying a little bit earlier, the primary organizing principle of all of its policies around education. Every discussion you have with Chinese officials about education, education reform revolves around the question of equity: "How can we make sure that kids in low income communities have access to the same kinds of educational opportunities that their peers in affluent communities have access to?"
Kristie Lu Stout: We know that the Chinese government has revealed a 10 year plan for, to improve its education system. Including introducing more experimentation in schools. That was introduced a few years ago, so has it yielded any results?
Andreas Schleicher: Well it's hard to judge, you know? Those things you can only look into in the longer term. But at least the data that we have shows quite a steep rise in progress. The fact that intended policies are implemented and ultimately achieve is not something you should take for given. And I think there's a fair, good chance. The question really is, is this 10 year plan ambitious enough? And that comes back to your point, again. If you don't change the school system now you'll get people buying themselves out of it. And that's basically the challenge that China has.
Kristie Lu Stout: I've learned so much about the education system here in China, that was a very riveting disscussion. Andreas Schleicher, Jiang Xueqin, Andrea Pasinetti, thank you!