What the U.S. Education System Can Learn from Shanghai

October 24, 2013

Yesterday’s New York Times editorial page featured the recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on working -age adult skills around the world. In what the NYT editorial board describes as “particularly alarming,” the research reveals that Americans are weak in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving compared to the rest of the developed world.

It’s not that our education has worsened; it’s that other nations continue to get better. The writers opine, “Beginning in the 1970s, other developed nations recognized that the new economy would produce few jobs for workers with mediocre skills.” Thus they “broadened access to education, improved teacher training, and took other steps as well.” One such nation is China.

Columnist Thomas Friedman writes about his recent trip to Shanghai in an attempt to understand why public schools there are considered number one in the world for student achievement. Friedman partly attributes Shanghai’s success to the insistence on the highest standards by the school’s leadership and constant professional development for teachers.

However, Shanghai’s schools were not always the envy of the world. In fact, they were considered average only 10 years ago. The turnaround has been remarkable.  

Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way explains the success of Shanghai, Poland, and Finland turning around their school systems:

"When all these countries were up against an economic, existential crisis at some point, they decided to really get serious about education. And they decided it needed to be rigorous for everyone, for the teachers, for the students, everybody involved."
And the hard work is paying off.

So, where does that leave us? Ripley believes that people in the U.S. are coming around and starting to realize that, “whereas you didn’t need rigor to succeed in America 20 years ago, you need it now. And our kids, in order to thrive in this economy, need to be able to think, write, and learn their whole lives.”

Essentially, we need to continually improve our education system like others do.

The Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, will be critical to student success. These standards are internationally benchmarked against leaders like Shanghai, Poland, Finland and others, and will provide students with the building blocks for success in college and careers.

We can no longer stand by and hope our competitors remain idle. They have not only caught up, they’ve passed us by. The question is, do we have the political will to remain committed to these high standards or will we retreat and be left in the dust?

Mark D'Alessio is manager of communications at the USCCF's Education and Workforce program.