Shanghai: What It Takes to Be Number One?

When I was in college, my friends and I had this play as a class project about a young man named Lukayo. Lukayo grew up in a village that was being terrorized by a monster. The monster had been blamed for dead livestock, destroyed crops, and an overwhelming fear gripping the entire village.

Lukayo, as a child, was very good. He took part in household chores. And as he grew, it became clear to everyone in the village that he was a very good man. Lukayo had a very close friend named Enteng. Enteng and Lukayo are of the same age and the two shared a lot while growing up. Lukayo became strong and wise and the time came for him to realize that he must confront the monster to save his village. Lukayo spent a lot of time training and preparing himself for this daunting task. And Enteng was always there, giving him moral support, cheering him at all times.

So Lukayo had to leave his family. He was about to make this treacherous journey and was determined to destroy the monster. The path was full of danger and traps, and Enteng was the only one to accompany Lukayo. Along the path, something very bad happened. Lukayo was forced to make a decision, a choice between continuing his quest for the monster or delaying his journey to save his dying friend. Lukayo made the very painful decision of leaving his friend Enteng to die.

Lukayo finally reached the cave of the monster. Inside the cave, the only thing that Lukayo saw was this creature that was no more threatening than an old twisted broken twig. Lukayo could not believe that he sacrificed everything for nothing....

Lukayo came back to the village. The village was no different from what it was before. The only difference was that the gossip was no longer about a monster, but about some other sort of plague. Lukayo had to sit down and whispered the following:

"This is what it means to be number one. To be alone. To be on top means to be by yourself, with no one else. And then you ask yourself, is it worth all the sacrifice?"

In the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Shanghai once again captures the top position in all three areas; Math, Reading and Science:

Above figure copied from
PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can do : Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science (Volume I)
Shanghai's success, of course, comes with doubters. Here is an excerpt from an article from the BBC, "'Bad loser' accusation on doubters of Pisa school tests":
People in Western countries sceptical about the success of Chinese pupils in the international Pisa tests have been attacked as bad losers, by the OECD's education expert, Andreas Schleicher. 
He likened them to doubters over sporting victories.
"Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping," he said.
Shanghai topped last week's tables. 
But Mr Schleicher has responded strongly to suggestions that the success of East Asian school systems was not a fair representation of their ability.
Shanghai's 15-year old students did perform well.  In fact, on the graph shown above, the bar for Shanghai has been cut short to 40 percent so that the other countries would still show some dark blue (percentage of students performing at the highest level - students who know a lot and at the same time, knows what to do with such knowledge). Thirty percent of Shanghai students are among the highest performers in math. Only 2 percent in the US and 3 percent in Europe reach this level.

Indeed, Shanghai is demonstrating an educational system that apparently works quite well. A midst the admiration on one side and skepticism on the other, an article from CNN may be worth attention. It is an opinion piece written by Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of Tsinghua University High School, entitled "The costs of Shanghai's education success story". First, it lays out some of the reasons why schools in Shanghai are performing at the highest level:
A tour of any Shanghai junior high school offers an easy explanation as to why Shanghai placed first on the PISA. 
They may be crammed and overcrowded, but the halls are clean and tidy, classrooms packed with attentive and focused students, and meeting rooms filled with university-educated and highly-motivated teachers trading notes on how to better design their 45-minute lesson.
But there is another side:
In the excitement over Shanghai's PISA victory we tend to forget the real lesson to be learned: How Finland can be the real model for education reform in the world. 
Finland, which ranked 12th in the 2012 math rankings, may not be number one, but, in my experience from visiting the country, it's succeeded in equipping all Finnish students with the tools to succeed in the knowledge economy without sacrificing their childhood, curiosity and creativity. 
After Shanghai children leave school at 4 p.m., they go on to cram school and do homework until bedtime. In stark contrast, when Finnish children leave school at noon, they just go play for the whole day. 
That Finnish students do almost as well as their Shanghai peers on PISA suggest that long school days, cram schools, and homework are not really about helping students learn -- it's more about pleasing anxious, demanding, and hyper-competitive parents.
Doing well in school should not come with losing one's childhood....