The recipe sounds familiar: merit pay for teachers, rigorous testing, national academic standards. Is it a school turnaround effort in New York City, New Orleans, or Los Angeles? No, it's happening in Shanghai.
Over the past decade authoritarian China has been able to achieve what has eluded generations of educators in the U.S., who have had to contend with political feuds, a history of local control of education policy, and the inherent difficulties of reaching consensus in a democracy. Shanghai, China's largest city, with more than 20 million people, topped all rivals in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment, a closely watched gauge of educational achievement. The U.S. ranked 31st in math among the countries and regions tested, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is envious of the Chinese. "They took my playbook," he says. "China is not just doing well in Shanghai. As a country, their pace of impr-ovement is breathtaking."
Consider the parallels: Shanghai used a school-renovation program to close its worst schools, according to a December report from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the international achievement test. Duncan is pushing states and districts to fire principals and teachers in the worst-performing schools. To steel politicians' resolve, he dangled more than $4 billion in school improvement grants. His department asked for an additional $600 million for this program for next year.
Shanghai awards pay increases to "master teachers," who are identified by administrators in schools with high scores on exit exams, says Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the OECD test. Duncan also favors merit pay for instructors. His Race to the Top grants go to states that incorporate student achievement into teacher evaluations. A total of $4.35 billion in such grants were awarded in 2010. In his budget, President Barack Obama has asked for $900 million in additional funding for similar grants next year.
Authorities in Shanghai designed a curriculum to prepare students for rigorous college entrance exams. More than 80 percent of the city's college-age students are admitted into universities, vs. an average of 24 percent for all of China, according to the OECD. Duncan's Race to the Top rewards states that adopt common academic standards developed by U.S. governors and school chiefs. (Obama wants the U.S. to lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020.)
The U.S. can't move as fast as China because of resistance from teachers unions and parents, says Russ Whitehurst, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. Yet Whitehurst, who served in the Education Dept. under President George W. Bush, doesn't think that's necessarily a bad thing. "Lots of people in education reform get themselves tied into knots in praise of the ability of an authoritarian regime to get things done," he says. "What gets lost is the price associated with the ability to move forward without the need for democratic dialogue."
Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.5-million-member American Federation of Teachers, has visited China and was struck by how much confidence parents there have in the education system. She contrasts that to the U.S., where bashing teachers unions has become a favorite sport of politicians. "In every country that is outpacing us, teaching and teachers are held in high regard," she says. "You don't hear any of this demonization or snarkiness about teachers."
China's education system draws criticism from some quarters because of its heavy emphasis on rote learning. Zhang Lin, a high school student in Shanghai, has to slog though four hours of homework every day. That leaves no time for extracurricular activities, including the "Brain Olympics" her school sponsors. "Most of my homework is reciting or memorizing all kinds of stuff," says the 15-year-old. "The homework takes up almost all of my time."
Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, cautions that emulating China may dull America's competitive advantage: creativity. "When you hold Shanghai up as a model, you have to worry about whether the cure can kill you," says Zhao, who specializes in comparative studies of education. "You ignore what has been sacrificed."
The bottom line: The Obama Administration wants to expand the use of education incentives, monetary and otherwise, already being used in China.