Nothing Was Revolutionary... And This Is What Gives Me Hope

Javier Rogla, CEO Empieza por Educar

There are two sessions that mark my reflections from our recent CEO retreat in Shanghai: 1) the conference with Minxuan Zhang, the president of Shanghai Normal University and the leader responsible for the systemic transformation in Shanghai; and 2) the school visit to the Qiangwey Primary School, where I was lucky enough to be in a group with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD who created the PISA benchmarks, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tom Friedman, founder and CEO of Teach for China Andrea Pasinetti, Teach For All co-founder and founder and CEO of Teach First Brett Wigdortz, and many other excellent CEOs from across the Teach For All network.

Mr. Zhang’s Conference

In a conference led by Andreas Schleicher, Mr. Zhang discussed the factors that contributed to Shanghai’s educational transformation, which is a rare example of excellence and educational equity. Shanghai's education system is now ranked #1 in the PISA results, with 20% of students achieving level 6 (in Spain, we have just 3% of students on that level, and the overall OECD average is 8%). In his opinion, there are three cultural/values-based factors and six systemic factors to consider:

Cultural factors:

  1. High expectations of families, and above all, students in educational pursuit
  2. A culture of rigorous effort, with a mindset of the more effort put in, the better the results
  3. A commitment to justice and equity

Systemic factors:

  1. Investment in teacher professional development (i.e. teachers observe and learn from one another, collaborate on the development of lesson content, and participate in robust learning communities)
  2. Allocation of more  resources to improve schools with the worst results (and  incentives for teachers and school leaders who achieve positive results in these challenging contexts)
  3. Assessments for growth (i.e. teachers evaluate their schools’ administrations, and parents, students, and other teachers evaluate teachers)
  4. Recognition of excellent teachers through monetary rewards and professional development, as well as a system-wide effort to elevate the prestige of the teaching profession (for example, every five years teachers must take an exam and, if they fail, they cannot keep teaching)
  5. Strategic agreement around factors that generate the highest impact for student and teacher development (i.e. more students per class, shorter lessons, less hours of instruction per teacher, and more hours for teacher professional development)
  6. Each school develops its own curriculum with the district and city’s guidance

None of the above is novel or surprising to us. All of these changes were implemented by a person who did not undergo a formal teacher training program, but, during the Cultural Revolution, was sent to a rural area, and as the most educated person in the region, was asked to teach the children, which he did for eight years. This experience touched him profoundly and led him to institute all of the changes in favor of excellence and equity. Now, Mr. Zhang is an expert in international education and a member of the PISA Governing Board.

The School Visit

We visited an elementary school in Shanghai in a low-income area. The school results have improved from the lowest quartile to the highest in just eight years. The infrastructure is more than adequate. What surprised me most was that lessons are just 35 minutes long and each teacher teaches two to three lessons a day. Second, teachers work each day on their professional development according to grade level and subject. I observed a 5th grade math class with 40 to 50 students in the room, and saw the entire school’s math department taking notes. The lesson was centered on one geometrical exercise: Imagine a rectangular yard with a rectangular pool. The pool can be anywhere in the yard with any orientation; is there a way to divide the yard and the pool into two equal parts? The lesson got increasingly difficult as time progressed. The teacher introduced a new concept, all students worked, then another new concept was introduced, and then again students worked, and then again.

We were told afterwards that the lesson content was developed by a group of teachers who organize themselves in learning communities for professional development. Classroom observations are used as an instrument to enhance development (hence the math department's presence in the classroom). Each new teacher has a mentor with whom they work one hour each day during their first year. In addition, they organize learning communities with the best teachers across the city.

After the class observation, I spoke to several students. They said they found the lesson easy (if that is true, one still could have managed to work more with the students). We also talked to teachers and the school principal. She explained to us that she had organized the staff according to how they adapted to her vision for the school. She described the staff as hard working and like a family. Her first priority was to integrate different student communities and work with families. The school provides training for parents so they can help their children with their studies. They have also developed a technology platform with help from an external company so that teachers and parents can interact with each other (every day, a teacher will chat online or talk on the phone with a parent) to help encourage students to complete their homework. When I witnessed all of this, it was surely excellent, but—just as before—nothing was revolutionary. And, this is what gives me hope.

As an additional final reflection: It’s interesting that another group visited a school in Shanghai that did not have good results. We compared notes and found that the systems are very similar to the school I visited, but the biggest difference was that students’ expectations were low. The school principal highlighted that his vision was to give students survival competencies and that 80% would never reach high school, and at the same time he reassured that they were doing a great job.

This post is adapted from withGanas, a blog hosted by Teach For All's Senior Director, Transformational Teaching, Steven Farr. More from withGanas