Now that we get easy information with the swipe of a finger, we have more data to compare countries. Who is ahead? Who is behind? Who needs the Olympics? Yet another report tells us that Finland tops the chart, but why Shanghai? How about the monolith of China and its success in improving education so quickly? There’s got to be a secret. According to a New York Times column, “The Shanghai Secret”, by Thomas Friedman, October 22, 2013, there is no secret. Educators are simply doing what they should be doing and then it all works.
The claim is that China is already reaping the rewards of 30 years of investments in infrastructure and education. Shanghai’s public secondary schools rated near the top in 2009 for the PISA tests (Program for International Student Assessment) comparing 15 year-olds in 65 countries. The tests cover reading, science and math skills. The reason the columnist claims there is no secret is because everything that appears to be in place and working are the basics of a functional education system, namely committed teacher training, professional development, peer learning, parental involvement and the earnest pursuit of quality. In a nutshell.
While 70 percent of a workweek is spent teaching, 30 percent is devoted to developing teaching skills and planning lessons. Training includes work online or collaborating with peers. Teachers watch each other, give feedback and share ideas. There are opportunities to observe master teachers in action.
There is even training for the parents who come three to five times in a semester to learn computer skills, enabling them to assist their children at home as well as follow their children’ progress online. Teachers chat by phone or online with parents two or three times a week to solidify their communication with parents.
The article summarizes, “The system is good at attracting average people and getting enormous productivity out of them.” The results are not from just urban privileged schools, but from across the board including the most challenging of conditions. The formula is to give teachers enough time to prepare and to give enough peer and master support to develop their expertise.
If the claim is that all of this is not a secret, it implies that everyone should be able to implement it. The constraints are not about budgets, about the lack of materials or the size of a classroom. Is the real dirty secret that we already have the solutions but don’t have the skills or the will to carry it out? We can imagine how a tiny rich country like Finland can do it, but Shanghai itself is already three times bigger in population.
30 years of investments in infrastructure and education is not a secret, but neither is it an easy solution for most countries. The idea of giving teachers more time to think and prepare lessons and support them with master trainers is not a TED talk, but neither is it something that most countries can do. Strapped for human resources and the money to pay teachers, we’re lucky to get them to saunter into the classroom.
There is no secret and no silver bullet that will shoot from every gun. We need to come up with solutions country by country, district by district, school by school and sometimes teacher by teacher. That may not be a comfortable revelation, but the sooner we resign ourselves to the hard work down the road, the sooner we can get where we want to go.