Domestic Affairs

China's hard-work education miracle

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-12-23 16:26
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Less than thirty years after beginning to rebuild the education system, Chinese students from Shanghai topped the world’s countries on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. The results were released earlier this month.

The test was developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries and first administered to OECD member countries, partner countries, and other economies in 2000. The PISA has been administered every three years since then and is considered one of the two foremost comparative evaluations of student achievement. This was the first time that students from mainland China participated.

Most impressively, the Shanghai students not only compiled the highest average scores in all three subjects tested, but garnered those achievements with relatively low variability in scores among the Shanghai student populations, despite considerable social and economic inequalities.

Shanghai had the world's highest percentage of students (76%) classified as resilient. Resiliency is an ability to persevere in the face of hardships and students coming from Shanghai’s lowest economic, social, and cultural classes overwhelmingly had scores in the top quarter of all students, debunking the myth that disadvantageous backgrounds necessarily lead to poor school performance.

The 470,000 students completing the assessment in 2009 were a randomly selected representative sample of the approximately 26 million, 15-year-old students, in the 65 participating countries and economies.

The PISA assesses the extent to which students have acquired and can apply the knowledge and skills they will need as adults. The test is comprised of math, science, and reading, and the main emphasis on the test in 2009 was reading. There were five sub-scales on the reading section of the PISA, challenging students to access, retrieve, integrate, interpret, and evaluate textual materials. The assessment included multiple choice and constructed response questions.

Various commentators have suggested that Shanghai is somehow an aberration in China because the country has poured resources into that city. However, many other provinces regularly outperform Shanghai on the gaokao or National College Entrance Examination so the city is likely not atypical, with the caveat that there are still many rural areas and migrant students who do not yet receive a first-class education in China.

One way to put Shanghai's accomplishment in perspective is to compare that city's results with those of Finland, a country long lauded for its educational prowess and the second-highest scoring PISA country in 2009. The population of Shanghai is over three times as large as the population of Finland. Shanghai's students scored 556 in reading, 600 in mathematics, and 575 in science while Finland’s scores were 536, 541, and 554 respectively. A forty point differential in each subject is approximately one grade level.

A special report analyzing Shanghai's performance cited a number of factors contributing to the city's success, including focus on complex, higher-order thinking skills, greater investment in schools where the challenges were greatest, transferring the highest-performing teachers to the lowest-performing schools, and using the highest-performing districts to mentor low-performing districts.

Most fundamentally, Shanghai and China have an education lesson for the world: the belief that effort is more important than innate ability. "Diligence can compensate for stupidity" is a common Chinese belief, an optimistic view not shared by many other cultures but a view which the world should now take to heart.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former Advanced Placement psychology teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.