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Yong Zhao: “Not Interested in Being #1:” Shanghai May Ditch PISA

“Not interested in #1 on International Tests, Focusing on Reducing Academic Burden: Shanghai May Drop Out of PISA” is the headline of a story in Xinmin Wanbao [original story in Chinese], a popular newspaper in Shanghai. Published on March 7th 2014, the story reports that Shanghai “is considering to withdraw from the next round of PISA in 2015” because “Shanghai does not need so-called ‘#1 schools,’” said Yi Houqin, a high level official of Shanghai Education Commission. “What it needs are schools that follow sound educational principles, respect principles of students’ physical and psychological development, and lay a solid foundation for students’ lifelong development,” says the article, quoting Mr. Yi.

One of the shortfalls of Shanghai education masked by its top PISA ranking, Mr. Yi, pointed out, is excessive amount of homework, according to the story. For example, teachers in Shanghai spend 2 to 5 hours designing, reviewing, analyzing, and discussing homework assignment every day. “Over half of the students spend more than one hour on school work after school [every day]; Teachers’ estimate of homework load is much lower than actual experiences of students and parents; Although the homework is not particularly difficult, much of it is mechanical and repetitive tasks that take lots of time; Furthermore, our teachers are more used to mark the answers as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ while students are hoping their teachers can help them open their minds and point out their problems.”

“Homework is only one of the elements that supports student development,” an unnamed PISA official told Xinmin Wanbao. “Their skills and qualities should also be acquired from a variety of activities such as play, online activities, and games instead of merely completing academic assignments or extending homework time.”

“Shanghai will not participate in PISA forever,” Professor Zhang Minxuan, director of PISA in China, told another Shanghai newspaper Xinwen Chenbaoin December 2013 [original story in Chinese]. “It will develop its own [education quality] evaluation system.”

The evaluation system Professor Zhang alluded to is the so-called “green evaluation” I blogged about previously. The new evaluation system deemphasizes the significance of test scores. Instead of being the sole measure of educational quality, test scores become one of 10 indicators Shanghai (and China) will use to evaluate schools. The new evaluation system will measure student motivation and engagement, student-teacher relationship, and physical fitness, according to Xinwen Chenbao.

Whether or when Shanghai decides to drop PISA is unknown and dependent on many factors, political consideration being one. But it is clear that Shanghai officials have acknowledged that PISA does not give them what they want. Its narrow definition of education quality as test scores obscures other aspects of education that are much more important.

Moreover, it seems that the #1 status has given Shanghai education officials much headache, according to a leading education policy researcher in Shanghai, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity recently. He believes that Shanghai’s success in PISA has backfired. “People know very well our education is no good, but when you don’t boast as the world’s best, they leave you alone. Now you claim to be the best, people begin to question you and expose all the problems that you cannot solve.” The government does not want that and “thus wants to get out of it.”

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Yong Zhao

Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. He curre...