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Fixing the Best Schools in the World

Why does Shanghai’s star principal want to mess with success?
Fixing the Best Schools in the World
Photograph by Ka Xiaoxi for Bloomberg Businessweek

Qiu Zhonghai is scanning the artifacts in his high school’s paleontology exhibit. “Here is the most valuable item in our collection!” he shouts, peering inside a glass case at a large football-shaped object. “The egg of a dinosaur, one of few in the world that contain a fetus—visible to students by X-ray.” Qiu, the principal of Qibao High School in Shanghai and a pioneer in the Chinese education system, moves past a towering tyrannosaurus skeleton to examine another item, which looks like nothing so much as petrified pot roast. “Dinosaur excrement!” he sings. “It is quite a rarity.”

Principal Qiu is a revered figure in the life of every Qibao student. He’s a solid, barrel-chested man with sparking eyes and a wily smile; decades of daily calisthenics make him nimble, even balletic, in his movements. He’s a man so engrossed in his work that he doesn’t notice when his shirt is rumpled, his tie is askew, and his glasses are smudged—but the mussy appearance only deepens his gravitas. So beloved is Qiu that when he walks by one of the 60 classrooms at Qibao, the students jump up from their chairs and explode in applause. (“He is basically a god,” one student remarks, only half-joking, when asked his opinion of Qiu.)